Business grows at Hamilton CNG station

At the city of Hamilton’s fueling station that sells compressed natural gas for specially equipped vehicles, the price was $1.99 per gasoline-gallon-equivalent Monday, lower than the $2.14 average price that same day across Greater Cincinnati that the GasBuddy survey found for the gasoline used by most vehicles.

And the fuel Hamilton sells at its station at 2220 S. Erie Blvd. is a far greener alternative, with business growing as Rumpke and other companies — especially long-haul trucking firms — increasingly send their compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles for refills.

When Hamilton's city government two years ago this month broke ground on the station, "we had four vehicles, and we had no outside customers," said Mike Gurr, field services superintendent for Hamilton's utilities. "The idea all along was, 'Let's grow our business,' and that's what we've been doing, and we've tremendously grown from our start."

When the station opened the station in December, 2014, the price also happened to be $1.99 a gallon.

During 2015, the first full year of operation, the station sold about 35,000 GGEs (gasoline-gallon-equivalents). Hamilton on Monday announced it signed a five-year agreement with U.S. Gain Clean Fuel to market the station so it sells significantly more — minimums of 50,000 GGEs the first year and 100,000 each of the following four. If the city extends the pact another five years, it would be for at least 200,000 annually, Gurr said.

“It helps us reduce carbon emissions,” Gurr said. “CNG is a much cleaner fuel, as opposed to alternatives like gasoline or diesel, and in addition to that, we also reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

Butler, Warren and Preble counties all recently received Fs last week in the 2016 State of the Air report for their levels of unsafe ozone levels, which are caused by such things as vehicles and coal-burning power plants.

CNG is produced domestically, Gurr noted. And CNG prices tend to be much less volatile than for gasoline and diesel, he said.

Hamilton, which operates a utility that provides natural gas to homes and businesses, does not need trucks to supply CNG to its station: Instead, it is piped to the site, with a Hamilton gas meter monitoring the station’s consumption.

U.S. Gain “has customers like Procter & Gamble, Anheuser-Busch, Unilever, Andersen Windows, and many others, and these large, over-the-road, long-haul trucks that have converted from diesel to CNG are going to come to the city of Hamilton to fuel their trucks at our station,” Gurr said.

The arrangement makes Hamilton’s station part of U.S. Gain’s North American network of 45 stations, with another 15 on the way.

“By making it a Gain Clean Fuel station, it really puts it on the national map, for larger fleets,” said Gain General Manager Bill Renz.

Renz said of the estimated 1,200 sites that sell CNG, only perhaps 200-300 are set up for larger semi-truck use, as Hamilton’s is. It’s only been during about the past four years, with manufacture of 12-liter engines that can pull 53-foot semi-trailers, that the market for such stations has really developed, he said.

Love’s Travel Stops recently bought a U.S. Gain competitor, Trillium CNG, Renz said, “so they’re definitely in the game.”

Charles Marino, a driver for Monarch Beverage Co. in Indianapolis who was refueling at Hamilton’s station Monday morning, said CNG fueling stations are rare enough that he must plan his trips around their locations. He said the nearest place he uses is along Interstate 70 in Indiana. His company also has a CNG fueling station on its property.

“Any profits that are obtained go back into the gas fund, to pay down costs,” Gurr said. “The gas fund paid for the station, so any profits would go back in to pay for the costs of the station.”

The station cost $1.8 million, of which a $700,000 grant came from the Ohio Department of Transportation, which sought to reduce highway pollution.

Hamilton’s city government, meanwhile, now has 10 CNG vehicles, with plans to increase its CNG fleet in coming years.

Hamilton has an exclusive agreement with trash-hauling company Rumpke, which uses the station daily. It also provides fuel for McNeilus, which manufactures trucks.

Hamilton’s station since 2014 has been able to serve four vehicles at a time, but officials when they built it looked ahead and provided the plumbing for more capacity, so, “It has the potential to serve up to eight,” Gurr said. “Everything’s ready to go, all we have to do is add the additional equipment.”

Staff writer Nick Graham contributed to this report.

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