Airports Save Money, Help the Environment Converting Fleets to Compressed Natural Gas

Greg Gerber
Published in: 

When the City of Houston received a free compressed natural gas (CNG) station for George Bush Intercontinental Airport, a fleet of eco-conscious airport shuttles was put in place to use the new station. These days, 30 buses powered by CNG ferry passengers to and from economy parking lots. They also


Project: Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) Fueling Station

Location: George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Houston, TX

Designer/Builder: Clean Energy

Donated by: Apache Corp.

Est. Conversion Costs: $20,000 - $25,000 per shuttle

Current CNG Fleet: 30 shuttles

Benefits: Natural gas costs less than diesel, burns 85% cleaner & produces 23% less greenhouse emissions in medium to heavy-duty vehicles.

drive home the airport's commitment to improving the environment and passenger health.

"With Houston being an energy capital of America, we are taking the lead in developing our own green energy initiative," says Chanda Felder, parking commercial development manager for the Houston Airport System. "Our mayor is very proactive in formulating that game plan."

The idea for an alternative fuel shuttle service was proposed during a brainstorming session for airport employees. Its timing was perfect because Apache Corporation CEO G. Stephen Farris had approached former Houston Mayor Bill White in 2009 with a plan to build and donate a CNG fueling station at the airport to serve taxis and other vehicles. (Apache is an oil and gas exploration and production company with operations in the United States, Canada, Egypt, the North Sea, Australia and Argentina.)

The suggestion for greener shuttle service also coincided with the airport amending its agreement with Central Parking, the contracted company that oversees all of its parking systems. As the city worked with Apache on the project, Central Parking researched acquiring CNG shuttles. Clean Energy was contracted to design and build the station, and it also helped the airport convert some existing cutaway shuttles to burn the alternative fuel.

Although it didn't facilitate the financing for Intercontinental's station, Clean Energy helps other customers secure loans for green initiatives, notes company vice president Daniel Huberty.

"We also help airports determine if CNG is a good product for them to use and, if so, help them order vehicles, service them properly and set them up on a preventative maintenance schedule," explains Huberty. "The ultimate goal is to sell fuel, but we feel a responsibility to educate people and companies about compressed natural gas. Once we establish the airport as a base of operation for CNG vehicles, we can identify other fleets in the area that can benefit from having a public access station. The airport segment is integral to our approach because they often serve as major hubs for each city."

Alternative Advantages

"Compressed natural gas makes a great transportation fuel because it reduces greenhouse emissions by 25% to 30%, and burns 85% cleaner than gasoline," says Frank Chapel, director of natural gas transportation fuels for Apache.

In addition, it's generally $1 to $1.50 less per gallon than gasoline and diesel fuel, notes Huberty. In some parts of California, he adds, natural gas sells for $2 less than diesel.

Felder appreciates the alternative fuel's effect on maintenance costs. Natural gas engines, he explains, don't require spark plugs and oil changes, but have life cycles similar to standard gas and diesel engines. CNG and diesel engines also have comparable corporate fuel economy rates - about 10 mpg, he adds.

By contract, Houston Intercontinental is scheduled to replace its CNG buses every three years at a cost of about $65,000 per bus plus $25,000 per vehicle for conversion expenses - all of which is eligible for federal grant money, notes Felder.

According to Huberty, it typically costs about $20,000 to convert smaller parking shuttles. "Because they burn about 7,000 gallons of fuel per year, airports will see a payback within one and a half to two years," he estimates.

Another advantage to CNG shuttles, notes Huberty, is their positive impact on the health of passengers and shuttle drivers. "Passengers waiting at the curb no longer need to breathe in diesel exhaust and deal with particulate matter," he remarks.

Gaining Steam

Of Clean Energy's 220+ U.S. fueling stations, 27 are at airports. In early May, the company signed long-term agreements to design, build, own and operate CNG fueling stations in non-secure areas at airports in Tampa, New York City, New Orleans and Philadelphia.

The station planned for Tampa International Airport (TPA) will support the airport's expanding fleet of CNG-powered transit buses for passengers and employees. TPA is the first airport in Florida to implement CNG power in ground transportation vehicles, reports the company.

Clean Energy's contract with John F. Kennedy International Airport foretells a CNG station at the Airport Plaza convenience store/fueling center located on land adjacent to the airport owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The station will support JFK's ground transport vehicles, off-site Parking Spot shuttle buses, taxis and other CNG vehicles operating in the area.

New stations planned for Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and Philadelphia International Airport are linked to off-airport parking operators - in New Orleans on property adjacent to the airport leased by Park N' Fly; in Philly on property owned by Wallypark.

All the stations, notes Huberty, will be available for public use 24/7.

"Airports and allied ground transport services have become magnets for natural gas vehicle usage of all types in response to the need to curtail emissions, decrease fuel costs and reduce dependence on imported oil," explains James Harger, Clean Energy's senior vice president and chief marketing officer. "We welcome this opportunity to support forward-looking airport fleet operators and off-airport parking leaders as they transition their fleets to natural gas power."

Currently priced significantly less than diesel, natural gas fuel produces up to 30% lower greenhouse gas emissions in light-duty vehicles and 23% lower emissions in medium to heavy-duty vehicle applications, relates Harger. It also appeals to consumers who prefer to buy local. U.S. Department of Energy reports estimate that 98% of the natural gas consumed in America is sourced in the United States and Canada.

Even before the project at Houston Intercontinental was complete, it prompted a transformation within the airport and surrounding neighborhood as more vehicles embraced the idea of using cleaner-burning fuel. The airport may also expand its commitment to alternative energy by installing electric charging stations in its economy lots.

"We met with a contractor in early May and are in the process of costing out the project now with hopes of having it completed by mid-summer," reports Felder. "We even developed a recycling program at the EcoPark facility with special containers at the entrances for paper, cans and bottles. The city can recycle that material to recoup some of its funding, and customers feel better about playing a part in helping the environment."

Atlanta Leads the Way

While CNG fueling is relatively new at Houston Intercontinental and still in the planning phases at JFK, Tampa International and others, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) has more than a year of experience in the area.

ATL currently uses 18 CNG buses to transport customers to and from the airport's Park-Ride lots, which include about 8,000 on-site parking spaces. Eventually, the airport hopes to equip all 40 of its shuttle buses to burn CNG within three years. When the entire fleet is converted, the airport will have reduced greenhouse gases by 30%, reports ATL aviation general manager Louis Miller.

"Equipping our shuttles to burn alternative fuels is something very important to us," explains Miller. "We want to do whatever we can to make the environment better. Our customers like to see what we are doing, and they appreciate our concern about the environment."

On that note, the airport uses five electric shuttle carts to provide service to passengers within its economy parking lots.

ATL's shuttle program was launched in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy's Clean Cities Program, which provides grants to convert vehicle fleets to CNG. The airport received approximately $400,000 in grants to convert its shuttles.

Currently, ATL shuttles fuel at a nearby station in College Park. But Miller says an on-airport station is likely within a few years as more taxis and ground transportation vehicles adopt the alternative fuel.

ATL's other green initiatives include a 56-acre wetland habitat with trails and observation areas. Its elevated people mover, which services a consolidated rental car facility, removed 125 rental car shuttle buses from the airport grounds. "It made a huge improvement in air quality and congestion, and improved passenger convenience," notes Miller.

On the recycling front, all its terminals include trashcans that self-separate recyclable materials, and a recent request for proposal included provisions to maximize recycling at all 125 airport concessions.

ATL's $1.4 billion international terminal, scheduled to open in 2012, is working toward certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. "We are making great progress, and plan to be a leader in the airport industry when it comes to recycling and clean energy," says Miller.

CNG's Extended Outlook

According to Chapel, the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel will escalate over the next 20 years. At the end of last year, the number of vehicles powered by natural gas climbed to 12 million - up from 4 million through 2004, he chronicles. By 2016, he expects the overall fleet to number 20 million.

America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), which includes Apache, hopes to fuel that increase by letting consumers and businesspeople know how much natural gas is available in the United States. An ANGA video shows that North America has more natural gas than Saudi Arabia has oil, relates Chapel. The United States alone currently has a 150-year supply of natural gas, he adds.

"Gasoline prices are not going down any time soon," he explains. "Compressed natural gas is clean, cheap and domestically produced. Part of our desire to get firms to embrace natural gas is to play a role in pushing America off its dependence on foreign oil, which accounts for 70% of our annual energy demand."

Safety & CNG

Safety is often a big concern regarding compressed natural gas, acknowledges Chapel. Many people, however, confuse CNG with propane. Propane is heavier than air, so when it escapes, it settles toward the ground - often near ignition sources, explains Chapel. Natural gas, on the other hand, is lighter than air, so it dissipates.

The cylinders that store CNG for vehicles, he adds, are made of high-strength materials designed to withstand impact and punctures. They also include pressure release valves to provide controlled venting of gas, which prevents pressure from building up in the tank in the event of a fire, he explains.

"The typical fueling station stores CNG at 4,200 pounds per square inch and dispenses fuel into a vehicle at 3,600 pounds per square inch," he notes. "When using natural gas products, airports and private fleets enjoy a top-notch experience when it comes to fuel safety matters."

Incentives for Conversion

Proposed legislation currently before Congress provides incentives for the use of natural gas as a vehicle fuel, the purchase of natural gas-powered vehicles and the installation of natural gas fueling infrastructure. States such as Louisiana and Oklahoma also offer tax incentives for vehicle conversions and natural gas fueling infrastructure.

"Some states' incentives will cover 50% of (conversion) costs via income tax credits," reports Chapel. "Assuming the Natural Gas Act of 2011 becomes law, the federal tax credit could cover from 50% to 80% of the incremental costs."

Between tax credits and 30% to 40% savings on fuel prices, converting to natural gas makes a lot of sense, he says. "It burns clean, results in significant energy savings and makes a great transportation fuel," he summarizes.

Clean Energy hopes to establish 10 to 15 airport sites per year as the company works toward its target of 100 airport stations within five years, reports Huberty.

Chapel points to Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport as a CNG success story, noting that it converted 34 shuttle buses from diesel. "Since 2003, the airport eliminated 1.3 million gallons of diesel fuel, saved $3 million in fuel costs and reduced vehicle exhaust by more than 100 tons compared to 2001 levels," he chronicles.

At Dallas-Fort Worth International, the city originally allowed CNG-fueled taxis to jump ahead of the line when picking up passengers, but modified the policy when other taxi companies complained, reports Chapel. CNG-powered vehicles, however, still get some preferential treatment at DFW.

"There are airport success stories throughout the country," says Chapel, citing San Francisco, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Burbank, Ontario and Orange County as examples. "We've only been involved with our CNG program for two years, but we have already seen tremendous interest in developing fleets. That paints a very rosy picture for airports, especially in light of state and federal incentives to convert vehicles from diesel fuel to compressed natural gas."

"More airports are looking at these solutions as a key to profitability," adds Huberty. But converting ground fleets to CNG also helps airports offset emissions produced by the aircraft that use their facilities every day.

"Airports can make an impact by requiring ground equipment and other fleets servicing the airport to use alternative fuel vehicles," he suggests.

As America's energy woes deepen this summer, compressed natural gas may be the ticket for airports serious about saving money, improving air quality and showcasing their commitment to the environment.

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