TOWN OF VERONA — Mark Barnes isn’t afraid to jump at an opportunity.
When he was 12 years old, he persuaded his mother to loan him $400 so he could buy a Toro snow blower to clear the sidewalks and driveways in his neighborhood near West High School.
It was also opportunity that forced him to drop out of UW-Madison when he was 16 credits shy of a diploma. That’s when he went all in on his Barnes landscaping and snow-removal business that is now one of the largest in southern Wisconsin.
And, later this month, Barnes, 53, will walk across the Kohl Center stage and graduate, with his daughter, Nikki, after she urged him two years ago to go back to school and finish his political science degree.
Now, Barnes sees another opportunity, this time in compressed natural gas, or CNG.
The technology will require significant upfront costs for Barnes but when your 32-year-old company burns through over 100,000 gallons of diesel and regular gasoline a year, it’s top of mind.
“There’s really been little out there that will work,” Barnes said. “But for (CNG) to work, I was going to have to figure out a way to work on the supply side, too.”
Barnes isn’t just spending $9,500 to $12,500 per vehicle to convert his pickups and dump trucks to use CNG. He created Barnes Green Energy, a company that will convert other companies’ fleets to CNG.
In conjunction with U.S. Oil, the supply will be remedied with an eight-pump, four-island fueling station on 2.7 acres of the 16.8-acre Barnes facility on Nesbitt Road. The $1.5 million pay-at-the-pump station, sans convenience store, is designed to not only fill Barnes’ vehicles but other CNG vehicles passing by on Highway 18-151.
Barnes said U.S. Oil projects 200,000 gallons in sales in the first year, not including vehicles from Barnes. Over time, the volume is expected to increase by 100,000 gallons a year to eventually over 1 million gallons annually.
“What they’re trying to do is link the corridor between Madison and Dubuque (Iowa) so the over-the-road guys will have a place they can get CNG,” Barnes said of U.S. Oil. “There’s a dead spot here.”
There are 23 CNG fueling stations around the state, according to CNGnow.com, a website that promotes the CNG industry. Ten of those stations are in southeastern Wisconsin with another five in the Fox River Valley and Green Bay area. The remainder are scattered throughout the state. No CNG stations are listed north of Highway 8 in northern Wisconsin or in southwest Wisconsin and there are only a few in the western part of the state.
Dane County has just one public fueling station, located at a Speedway gas station at 2500 Royal Ave. near the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Monona.
But more are in the works.
La Crosse-based Kwik Trip has plans to increase its public CNG stations, and CNG has also been the focus of a series of four public information sessions held throughout the state over the last year.
The Wisconsin Natural Gas Vehicle Fuel Roundtable events were coordinated by the Wisconsin State Energy Office, Wisconsin Clean Cities, and an advisory group of businesses. The goal of the forums, the last of which was held in April, was to provide information about natural gas as a transportation fuel and identify opportunities to expand the use of CNG vehicles. About 100 people attended each roundtable event.
“It’s the hot topic. It’s what everyone is interested in,” said Heather Goetsch, a program associate with Wisconsin Clean Cities.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration calls CNG and liquefied natural gas the fastest growing fuels in the country and projects growth of 11.9 percent each year to 2040. The growth is being led by tractor trailers, buses and heavy-duty pickups and vans, with growth in those sectors pegged at 14.6 percent each year, according to the agency.
Compare the cost of CNG to traditional gasoline and diesel and it’s easy to understand the excitement.
The national average of a gallon of gas is about $3.53, and diesel is at $3.87 per gallon, according to AAA. The national average for CNG, according to CNGnow is $2.10.
Average prices by state for CNG range from a low of $1.20 in Oklahoma to $3.34 in Connecticut.
The average price of CNG in Wisconsin comes in at $1.88 compared with $3.74 for regular gas and $3.96 for diesel, AAA said.
State fuel taxes and fees for CNG are 24.7 cents per gallon compared to 32.9 cents per gallon for regular gasoline, said Chris Roy of the state Department of Revenue.
“If you get 10 (miles per gallon) or less, you should (convert) almost automatically because your payback is so fast,” said Barnes, who began researching CNG in 2001 but got serious about the technology in 2011.
Barnes’ staff technicians are certified to install and maintain CNG conversion systems for General Motors and Chrysler vehicles using NatGasCar systems. The company was recently approved to convert and maintain Ford vehicles with CNG systems from Altech-Eco Corp.
Conversions take a two-person team four to six hours to complete. The job includes adding a fuel injector to each cylinder of the engine, adding fuel lines and filters and installing a fuel tank.
In a minivan, the tank is installed in the rear cargo area. In a pickup truck, it rests in the bed, up against the cab and has the appearance of a toolbox.
Barnes has six vehicles converted to CNG and plans to convert another 40 vehicles from its 140-vehicle fleet by next spring.
A handful of CNG trucks were used over the winter and performed well, said Troy Grindle, shop manager.
“They were unbelievable,” Grindle said of the CNG trucks. “We ran these all winter long with no problems whatsoever, pushing snow, pulling trailers. (They had) plenty of power.”