Campus & Community

Filling up on DU campus is a (natural) gas

DU’s facilities management department is living up to the University’s “Pioneer” spirit by installing what’s believed to be the first compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicle refueling station on a Colorado university campus.

The natural gas “pump,” a fueling station for a growing fleet of maintenance and other vehicles that run on natural gas, offers DU a cleaner and less-expensive way of powering vehicles. And unlike building a gasoline station, which requires a storage tank, the natural gas station draws from the underground pipes that crisscross the city already.

“We’ve got a good story to tell in what we are doing about carbon emissions,” says Allan Wilson, DU’s director of building services. Wilson introduced drivers to the station Sept. 3.

A cleaner environment

Building on a $180,000 grant from the Denver-basedStrategic Environmental Project Pipeline (StEPP) Foundation — a nonprofit dedicated to a cleaner environment and clean energy — DU converted a dozen campus vehicles to use natural gas, although the vehicles can still run on gasoline when needed.

The University has gone on to convert three more vehicles on its own, at a cost of about $12,000 each, and is planning to convert at least two more in the near future. Since 2007, burning natural gas instead of gasoline has kept more than 9.5 tons of carbon out of the atmosphere and cut fuel costs by at least $12,000, Wilson says.

With the new pump station, which draws gas off existing lines and compresses it in a holding tank for rapid dispensing, DU departments can run vehicles at the equivalent of paying $2.25 for a gallon of gasoline.

“The synergy here of environmental and financial is what makes sense from my view of the world,” Wilson says. “That’s real sustainability.”

First in Colorado

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s list of CNG fueling stations nationwide, DU is the first university campus in Colorado to build a station. Judy Walton, acting executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, said a quick search turned up a few schools elsewhere in the country with fueling stations, and none in Colorado.

DU isn’t alone in seeing the benefits of natural gas. Nationally known oilman and entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens is promoting natural gas vehicles on his Web site as part of a plan to clean the environment and cut American dependence on imported oil.

“Natural gas is the cleanest transportation fuel available today,” Pickens writes in his plan for energy independence.

A safe effort

Like any new technology, making end-users comfortable with the developments takes time, Wilson says. Fueling is slightly different. Users connect a nozzle to a nodule protruding from the front of the vehicle. But efforts have been made to make the experience as much like a regular gasoline fill up as possible, including the use of a retro-fitted gasoline pump. And while the tanks are often located inside the cabin space of a vehicle, they are reinforced for safety.

“A lot of people don’t realize, it’s the same fuel that’s heating your home and your family. It’s an extremely safe fuel,” says Chris Kielty, a service technician with FuelTek, the company that helped DU establish its fleet and fueling center. “It’s extremely cheap, and it’s great for the environment.”

The tanks are built tough, and if there were to be a leak, natural gas dissipates, rather than emitting heavy fumes that accumulate in one place and explode, like gasoline. FuelTek President Wes Biggers says natural gas is far less explosive than gasoline and in most cases it’s hard to even ignite.

Drivers should hardly notice a difference when operating the converted vehicles. They start the same way and run the same way, Wilson says. The one drawback for the converted vehicles is a limited range on natural gas, hardly a problem for vehicles that rarely venture off campus.

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