Unmanned, app-friendly filling stations could expand Millennial interest in CNG fueled cars, pickups


Will Ohio’s New “Filling Station” Model Draw Millennial Drivers to the Highways?It’s been a while since the familiar Esso filling stations dotted the U.S. highways. But if you were a kid in the ‘50s and ‘60s, that means you are a Baby Boomer who rode around in your parents’ car when they pulled into an actual “service station” whenever the fuel gauge pointed below half a tank. If you belong to Generation X or the Mellennials, after the mid-1970s, “service stations” were replaced by self-service gas pumps after the Arab oil embargo caused the famous “gas crisis” in the U.S.

Those service stations that thrived in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s were places where men in uniforms ran out to your car when you rolled over a trigger hose on the pavement in front of the gasoline pumps. That caused a bell to ding loudly inside a service bay, sending you a man known as a “service station attendant” (sometimes more than one attendant would trot out ). They wore uniforms and greeted you with two simple questions in order: “Fill’er up?” followed by “Regular or high test?”

Will Ohio’s New “Clean Filling Station” Model Draw Millennial Drivers to the Highways?

Photo: Historic Memphis

The minute you pulled your car in, the service station attendants would spring into action to fill your car’s gas tank, check your oil and tire pressure, wipe the windshield clean with a liberal dose of elbow grease, take your money for the gas and send you on your way with a smile. Oil companies like Texaco, Cities Service, Phillips 66, Esso, Shell and Gulf peppered the countryside with service stations branded with their names. The idea was to lure motorists and create loyalty to their particular brand of gasoline and oil with friendly, expert service. The attendant did the work; you never got out of the car.

Today’s filling stations aren’t service stations. They are convenience stores, supermarkets and warehouse stores with serve yourself gas pumps out front. No friendly attendant runs out to help you. But this fits the psyche of today’s customers. Sociologists tell us that most of America’s young 20-somethings prefer to do whatever can be done with their smartphones. These Millennials are clean-energy and technology-focused. They are more inclined to tap their cell phones to summon a quick transport in an Uber or a Car2Go, than to take on the albatross of a monthly car payment and auto insurance, and start burning gasoline by the tankful.

People in their 20s may have a new, Millennial-centric reason to champion car ownership, courtesy of smartphone technology and two trendy clean transportation fuels: electricity and compressed natural gas (CNG).

In Ohio, a transit agency is experimenting with a new breed of filling stations

Akron, Ohio’s local transit agency just opened its first public combo-filling station. It’s unmanned and offers no service. Its sleek “pumps” offer the driver a choice of a compressed natural gas (CNG) refill, or an electric car quick charge.

Will Ohio’s New “Clean Filling Station” Model Draw Millennial Drivers to the Highways?

The agency’s $2.25-million Akron Metro filling station, which began construction in January, had its grand opening last week. It offers two CNG fuel pumps along with two plugs for quick-charging plug-in electric cars, the Akron Beacon Journal reports.

Akron Metro has used CNG to fuel some of its buses since 1996 and has since expanded use to 38% of its fleet. Metro’s 91 CNG-powered buses are fueled at night, so the agency decided to put the equipment to use during the day when it would otherwise be idle. “We’re kind of testing the waters,” the agency communications specialist said.

Millennials can support clean energy and fill’er up via an app

To charge their electric cars at the Akron Metro filling station,” the Ohio drivers register on chargepoint.com and download a mobile app. After that, charging your plug-in electric car is free for the driver. Cost to fill your tank with CNG is $1.89 per gallon–cheaper than gasoline at today’s $2.00+ per gallon prices. The CNG side is also totally self-serve and accepts all major credit cards.

Will CNG vehicles catch on with U.S. drivers?

Drivers in the U.S. have been slow to take to natural gas powered vehicles in any significant numbers.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, natural gas powers about 150,000 vehicles in the United States and roughly 15.2 million vehicles worldwide. Compare that to the approximately 258 million light vehicles in operation in the U.S. in 2015 fueled by gasoline and diesel fuel.

How fast-fill CNG stations work

According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center, fast-fill CNG stations receive fuel from a local utility line at a low pressure and then use a compressor on site to compress the gas to a high pressure. Once compressed, the CNG moves to a series of storage vessels so the fuel is available for a quick fill-up.

Will Ohio’s New Clean Filling Station Model Draw Millennial Drivers to the Highways?

Drivers filling up at a fast-fill station experience similar fill times to a conventional gasoline fueling station—less than 5 minutes for a 20 gallon equivalent tank. CNG at fast-fill stations is often stored in the vessels at a high service pressure (4,300 psi), so it can deliver fuel to a vehicle faster than the fuel coming directly from the compressor, which delivers fuel at a lower volume. Drivers use a dispenser to transfer CNG into the tank.  But today CNG filling stations are sparse. The Department of Energy calculates that there are presently 946 CNG filling stations in the U.S. A group called CNG Now offers an interactive map and apps to make it easy for drivers of natural gas vehicles to find filling stations.

As to the electric vehicle side of the Ohio filling station model, new buyers are plunking down $1,000 deposits in record numbers for the Tesla Model 3, a sporty all electric four-door sedan which the company says will retail in the $35,000 price range.

Will Ohio’s New Clean Filling Station Model Draw Millennial Drivers to the Highways?

Tesla Model 3 plug-in electric vehicle

Ford, maker of the world’s best-selling truck, the F-150, began offering the popular vehicles for the first time with a CNG package option available on the 2016 model. Ford says its 5.0-liter 2016 V8-powered F-150 can run on compressed natural gas or propane, making it the only manufacturer of a CNG/propane-capable half-ton pickup.

Ohio’s New “Filling Stations” Could Attract Millennials to the Highways

Source: EIA

Slow on driver uptake or not, the DOE reports a definite uptrend in U.S. natural gas vehicle fuel consumption. In 2016, the volume of natural gas used to power vehicles surpassed 3 billion cubic feet (Bcf) for the first time. U.S. shale producers have a nascent industry to support.

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