Columbia man predicts his unusual truck will be the first of many

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COLUMBIA - Sam Easley says he saves anywhere between $3,000-7,000 per year driving an alternative energy pick-up truck, and he's the only person in the area that has one like it.

"It runs on both gasoline and compressed natural gas," Easley said. "And it has a range of 700 miles, so I could drive from here to Pensacola, Florida without filling up if both tanks are full before I leave."

The city of Columbia recently opened its first compressed natural gas (CNG) station on August 26. It provides fuel for the newly-bought city-owned vehicles and the general public, at a cost equivalent to about 60 percent of the price of regular gasoline.

"Compressed natural gas provides a very economic and environmentally-safe fuel to use," said Eric Evans, Columbia Fleet Operations manager. "This provides us the opportunity to diversify our fuel source so that we're not relying on just a single source. Relying on petroleum based-fuels that come from foreign countries can sometimes be interrupted or cause some real spikes in cost."

Spikes in international prices would not be a concern with CNG, which is a domestic fuel source.

Evans said the city of Columbia currently has nine compressed natural gas-powered vehicles with 31 more on the way.

The potential savings once Columbia's plan is in full effect are staggering, Evans said.

"When we fully implement our vehicles and our fleet that we want to convert to natural gas, we're looking at saving almost a million dollars per year in fuel cost," Evans said.

So far, Easley is the only person in the city to own a personal vehicle that runs on both CNG and gasoline.

"It's lonely out here!" Easley said, laughing. "I don't run into very many people out here filling up. This is almost like my own personal fuel station."

But that could change.

"It took about seven years for diesel to become a premiere fuel. The experts think that natural gas is in the second year of that same kind of process," Evans said. "I think it's is growing so fast that it won't be long where natural gas stations are as common as gas stations are today."

Easley's occupation is what led to him purchasing the CNG vehicle.

"I'm a contractor, and I drive a lot more miles than everyone else does," Easley said. "I've spent over $10,000 in fuel in one year."

Easley said this put a strain on his wallet, so he searched for a solution.

"I started looking for a cheaper fuel, and I was looking in the area of 'griesel', which is diesel synthetic. The cost and the time involved in it was just way too much," Easley said. "I stumbled across compressed natural gas vehicles that were being sold in Oklahoma, which led me to Kansas, which then led me to Joe Machens for a Westport Wing CNG truck."

Easley said he would not be surprised if more people in other driving-intensive occupations purchase a CNG vehicle.

"There's electricians, there's plumbers, there's taxi cab drivers, all of those types of people will make the switch first. Then you'll see homeowners make the switch," Easley said. "There has to be more infrastructure. It's here. It's coming."

For now, he said, he is compressed natural gas' biggest supporter.

"It's fun to be on the cutting edge and way out front while no one else has one," Easley said. "But I'm pushing it hard to all my buddies."

Evans said a CNG vehicle would be beneficial to people who plan on staying close to home, but it may not be good for long-distance hauls.

"If you're going to stay in the Columbia area, and you're a commuter, certainly you could get a natural gas vehicle and take advantage of that," Evans said. "I wouldn't try to drive to California today with a natural gas vehicle because there are gaps in that infrastructure in the United States."