Thanks to an effort fueled by Gov. Joan Finney, the use of a new alternative energy source compressed natural gas has been taken off the back burner.
With the help of a federal grant, the governor is currently converting 23 of the state's fleet of vans and trucks in Topeka to "dual-fuel" vehicles that can, with a flick of a switch, operate off either gasoline or natural gas.
The governor's ultimate plan is to get more cars and trucks traveling the state's roads using natural gas. But that goal will take time, says a Kansas University alternative fuels researcher.
"Don't hold your breath for it to happen tommorrow, but it will come along," said George W. Swift, a KU professor of chemical and petroleum engineering.
Swift said industry projections show that by the year 2000, about 10 percent of the vehicles on the road will be powered by compressed natural gas.
"THE GOVERNOR'S efforts are making people aware of the possibility of natural gas," Swift said. However, getting more of the public to use compressed natural gas is a "chicken and egg game," he said.
That's because it's currently difficult to get compressed natural gas there are only about 600 public fill stations in the country, he said.
"As far as rolling down the turnpike from here to Denver, you're in deep trouble," Swift said. "But it's coming along and it's got a lot of virtue to it."
To involve private industry, the governor has pledged that the state's dual-fueled fleet will be refueled at a public fill station in Topeka that recently was opened as a joint venture by Amoco Oil Co. as the distributor and KPL Gas Service as the supplier.
With a public fill station in operation, the governor hopes to encourage businesses that use fleets to consider using compressed natural gas because they won't have the expense of installing their own private fueling facility.
"IT'S A grass-roots movement," said Ramona Becker, director of Public Affairs at the Kansas Corporation Commission.
"We're just watching this happen all over the state," Becker said. "We're concentrating getting the information out to fleet owners. We just hope that in the process, just your average consumer will catch on to this."
Becker said the movement has gained momentum since the governor announced her initiative in October.
A task force in Hugoton, where the state's largest natural gas fields are located, is close to signing a contract for a compressed-natural gas fill station in their community, she said.
Meanwhile, the State Energy and Research Division is now helping Wichita area city and county officials in a cost-analysis study about using compressed natural gas-powered vehicles.
And a private company is expected to open soon in the Kansas City area that will convert cars and trucks to dual-fueled vehicles.
CURRENTLY, the cost of converting your own car or truck to use compressed natural gas is expensive between $1,500 and $3,000, Becker said.
"So you have to be committed to it," she said.
The conversion to the engine itself is fairly simple it's a fuel-injection system, with leak-detection mechanisms, Swift said. Most of the cost is in the high-pressure storage tanks, he said.
Swift said compressed natural gas is currently the only alternative fuel that is cheaper than regular gasoline. It costs about 50 to 79 cents per equivalent gallon.
"Its only detriment is that it's not liquid," he said. Because of that, vehicles can't travel as far on a tank of compressed natural gas as they can on a tank of gasoline, he said.
He said liquified natural gas eventually could be used, but it would require tanks that could store the gas at 260 degrees below zero.
Swift currently is interested in doing research with one of the major U.S. automakers' vehicles that are dedicated to operate solely on natural gas.
"The trouble with dual-fuel vehicles is they don't run as well on either fuel as if they were dedicated," he said. "You really want to go dedicated. But it's going to be awhile before you can sell those to the public because there are not that many fueling stations."