Gas stations are so common nobody notices them. But in June a station opened at Bluffton and Ferguson roads that really does sell gas -- compressed natural gas, or CGO.
A competitor plans to open a similar CGO station down Bluffton Road later this year at the former site of the Pleasant Center Elementary School, and a variety of factors virtually guarantee even more will be built here and across the country in the years to come, officials of both companies agree.
"We have 17 (CNG) stations now and we're building 15 more," said Bill Renz, general manager of Wisconsin-based GAIN Clean Fuel, noting that the proximity of his station to one under construction by Fort Wayne's CNG Fuel Inc. is no coincidence: The General Mills distribution center and other nearby industries depend on the heavy trucks that previously relied on diesel fuels but can increasingly accommodate CNG -- which just happens to be plentiful in the NIPSCO pipeline that runs parallel to Bluffton Road. Interstates 469 and 69 are also nearby.
But it's technology and economics -- with a little environmentalism thrown in -- that have some experts predicting a 20 percent increase in the use of CNG within the next five to seven years.
The development of a heavy-duty truck CNG engine last year by Vancouver-based Cummins-Westport was a "game-changer," Renz said, because it allowed CNG-powered trucks to haul the heavy loads once monopolized by diesels. Although Renz concedes that a heavy-duty CNG truck can cost $60,000 more than a diesel counterpart, cost more to maintain and gets slightly lower mileage, the selling point is obvious:
CNG costs about $2 less per gallon than diesel fuel -- and produces none of those evil "greenhouse" gases.
For those reasons, CNG Fuels General Manager Kris Kyler said, General Mills wants its distributors to use CNG. In fact, the company recently signed a deal with Dart Transit Co. to ship its good using 16 CNG tractors. GAIN has a contract to provide fuel to Dart, Renz said, which will help recoup its $1.5 million investment in the Bluffton Road facility, which is adjacent to a traditional gas station/convenience store.
That's important, Renz said, because although his station is self-serve, some trucks also can accommodate traditional fuels and their drivers may want to buy a drink, a snack or use the bathroom.
CNG Fuel owner and well-known Fort Wayne businessman Bruce Dye is using a slightly different business model. His store will be stand-alone and unattended, and currently has no contract fuel to large fleets. But Dye, who opened his first station in Lafayette last year and hopes to have seven by the end of the year, believes his total $10 million investment is worth the risk because of the growth potential and low overhead:
"They're unmanned, there's no inventory and, because you pay with credit card, there are no receivables," Dye said.
Because of the cost difference, it may be years -- if ever -- before CNG becomes a popular fuel in consumer vehicles. Even so, Dye and Renz said the nation's ample supply of natural gas -- aided by the sometimes-controversial "fracking" process -- should make the technology increasingly popular in large truckers that would no longer have to worry about price increases that may or may not result from worldwide competition for petroleum.
For now, though, it's the old chicken-or-egg thing. Which must come first? More CNG vehicles -- or the stations needed to fuel them? The local GM plant makes 400 trucks a day but has built just 261 gas-CNG trucks this year, spokeswoman Stephanie Jentgen said.
"But as we get more (CNG) stations, that could change," she said.
Perhaps it already is.