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Driving experience similar for natural gas, gasoline vehicles

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It looks like just about any other black Chevy Tahoe in Charleston; however, it's one of the few vehicles in town running on fuel that comes from West Virginia.

While the vast majority of the state and nation rely on gasoline made from oil from all around the world, some are looking to local fuel sources to power state transport. Given the state's shale gas boom resulting from development in the Marcellus region, it's natural to assume the state will start looking at other ways to use its abundant fuel source.

As Matt Thomas, Kanawha County emergency management and economic development coordinator, fires up the department's Tahoe, the most striking thing is how very normal the Tahoe operates. For the average driver, taking the wheel of a natural gas vehicle is nearly identical to a typical driving experience.

"As far as your get-up and your horsepower, it's almost the equivalent. If you lose anything it's just a little bit," Thomas said. "Once the conversion price goes down and the marketplace is working on that, it seems like it will be an advantage for a regular consumer."

There are a few special considerations. Measuring the gas can produce different results depending on temperature as density of the gas shifts. Filling up, is of course, a slightly different experience.

One of the biggest challenges at the moment is that there are a limited number of places to refill natural gas vehicles. The Tahoe is able to switch from natural gas to gasoline mid-drive, tackling the risk of running out of fuel away from a natural gas station.

However, the transition from a gasoline-powered vehicle, at least for Kanawha County officials, has been relatively seamless.

"It's pretty much met our expectations," Thomas said. "When we first got into it we weren't sure what to expect other than what industry experts told us about. We're excited to be able to use (natural gas) as a fuel source."

The fuel is cleaner than gasoline, emits less odor and fumes and costs less than current gasoline prices.

Thomas said he is most excited about being able to use a domestic fuel source.

"It's West Virginia gas," he said. "This is stuff that when you fill up we're filling up right off our gas line right here. … It provides a lot of opportunities to jobs. We're trying to create a conversion industry here. We're going to have CNG stations. It has a very competitive price over regular gasoline."

Fleets will likely be a way natural gas vehicles can get a start. Consumers whose driving might not necessarily pivot around a convenient fill-up location could find it difficult to fill up. The payback period – how long it takes before the fuel savings are equivalent to the upfront costs – can also take longer if the consumer isn't a frequent traveler.

The county paid just over $12,000 for the natural gas vehicle conversion kit. The vehicle itself cost $33,000.

"Down the road, as far as an average consumer, we probably won't see it as soon as fleets, particularly because of the cost," Thomas said.

Prices on the conversion kits are expected to go down, and if vehicle fleets open their fueling stations to the public, natural gas vehicles could become more common. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin recently proposed keeping a tax credit of up to $7,500 in place for natural gas-powered vehicles.

The governor also recently launched a task force to investigate the possibility of promoting the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel. A local group, the Kanawha Converts Consortium, is making efforts to bring more natural gas vehicles and stations to the county.

Thomas said the county is hoping to incorporate the vehicles into more areas of the county, including the sheriff's department and mental hygiene services.