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Lawrence considers switching bus power source

Published on -8/25/2013, 8:09 PM

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) -- Lawrence city leaders are putting the brakes on plans to purchase new buses in order to give another look at using compressed natural gas to power the public transportation fleet.

The city had planned to buy three diesel and diesel-electric hybrid buses, but the lower cost of natural gas is prompting a second look to see if it might be more financially feasible to go with an alternate fuel source.

"This seems like the sort of thing that if we don't at least consider making the switch, we may look back 20 years from now and regret it," said City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer.

The Lawrence Journal-World (http://bit.ly/185CKBD ) reported the city conducted a feasibility study four years ago that compared the fuel costs, but it was before natural gas prices dropped and supplies increased.

In the last week, the average price for diesel fuel nationally was about $3.90 per gallon, the U.S. Energy Information Agency said. By comparison, compressed natural gas sells for about $2.10 per gasoline-gallon-equivalent -- and as low as $1 per gallon in some regions of the country.

Increased use of hydraulic fracturing technologies has opened new domestic supplies of natural gas, helping to drive down prices.

"I think the numbers probably have changed quite a bit since we last looked at it," said Mayor Mike Dever.

Dever said the use of compressed natural gas would be a significant change, though more study is necessary to determine if, among other issues, the savings would be worth it.

One of those issues is installation of a quick-fueling compressed natural gas station. Lawrence has access to a slow-fueling system owned by Black Hills Energy at the utility's maintenance shop. It would take several hours to fill a bus tank.

A federal grant will help pay for the city to install a slow-fueling station to be used to test a new compressed natural gas trash truck and a traditional city-owned pickup truck. Dever said a quick-fueling station would cost $2 million to construct.

Dever said choosing a site for a fueling station isn't simple. The city's bus fleet is located in northern Lawrence near the Kansas Turnpike, while trash trucks and other vehicles are based in eastern Lawrence. A station to meet the needs of both operations would require changes in doing business.

City leaders also question how long natural gas prices will remain cheaper than traditional oil products.

"Is the fracking industry a sustainable one? Because that is really what this is all built on at the moment," Dever said.

Residents are driving some of the conversation. Graham Kreicker urged commissioners recently to delay buying new buses until natural gas options were explored. He said natural gas companies are helping communities nationwide install quick-fuel stations in exchange for signing long-term fuel contracts.

"There are communities that have gotten over the hurdles you are concerned about," Kreicker told commissioners. "We should be looking toward having a natural gas fleet, and we should encourage the school district to do the same."

A report from city staff on the issue is expected to be completed in the next several weeks.

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