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CANYON COUNTRY DRIVER SAVES WITH CNG-POWERED CAR.

Byline: JUDY O'ROURKE Staff Writer

CANYON COUNTRY -- A local woman who drives an alternative-fuel-powered car calls herself a friend of the environment and a foe of foreign-supplied oil, but she might not realize bureaucrats are hot on her trail.

Her 2002 Chevy Cavalier -- bought on eBay when its predecessor conked out -- will get the equivalent of 30 mpg at $1.55 per gallon in compressed natural gas.

``I pay half of what everybody else pays for fuel and I'm not polluting anything,'' said Victoria Bennett, who paid $6,100 for the now-discontinued model. ``It's like when you turn on your stove in the kitchen, no smoke is coming out of it.''

The bi-fuel car's tank holds up to six gallons of CNG and 13 of regular gas, which she uses as a back-up. She has considered buying a Canadian-made appliance that fuels the car overnight through a hook-up to her home's natural gas line, but prefers not to shoulder the cost of minor construction right now.

A sensor automatically shifts from CNG to regular gas when the natural gas runs out, whether Bennett is crawling across town or flying at 60 mph along the freeway.

She strategically plans CNG purchases, and has been aided by a public pump at the city's environmentally friendly transit maintenance facility, opened in April.

While lone drivers might not flock to the technology, those who buy fleets of cars have.

``In 2005, in California, about 100 million gallons of petroleum was displaced in buses, trucks, fleet vehicles like shuttles and taxis using CNG and liquefied natural gas,'' said Mike Eaves, president of the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition. ``Focusing on high fuel use, (using CNG in) fleets makes a lot of economic sense. The city of Santa Clarita can potentially make its own fuel at the station for about $1.40 (a gallon) gas equivalent.''

He compared that with diesel prices of about $3 a gallon. The South Coast Air Quality Management District provides $150,000 grants to entities that include public access islands in their CNG fuel stations.

About 20 percent of Santa Clarita's 94-bus fleet runs on CNG, and as gasoline-powered buses are phased out, their replacements will run on the newer fuel. Trucks that haul commercial trash in town also fuel up at the station.

Eaves drives a CNG-powered 2001 Honda GX. The coalition publishes a directory listing the 160 public CNG stations statewide, with maps and payment options. Most of the stations are in Southern California.

Though Bennett would probably hightail it in the other direction, General Motors has devised a program to trim its customers' first-year gas tabs. On selected models -- Suburbans, Tahoes, Monte Carlos and Impalas -- its Fuel Protection Program monitors miles logged through the On-Star system and refunds the difference in gas bills above $1.99 a gallon, said Frank Hazem, general manager of Power Chevrolet in Valencia.

The average price of a gallon of regular gas in the Los Angeles area Friday was about $3.27, said Marie Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

While many who drive hybrids and alternate-fuel vehicles can drive solo in the carpool lane, Bennett cannot because her car also uses regular gas. The Department of Motor Vehicles received requests for nearly 70,000 special HOV-lane stickers since the fuel-efficiency program was begun last August.

And while several auto companies have turned to hybrids as the next big thing and other technologies are also in the running, the race to break oil dependency is far from over.

``The bottom line is, we're addicted to oil and have to pursue all the potential solutions to breaking that addiction,'' said Luke Tonachel, a vehicles analyst for the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. ``Included in that list is biofuels, electricity, fuel cells and alternate fuels like CNG and hydrogen. They'll all play a role.'' Biofuels include ethanol and biodiesel.

He says fuel economy regulations have not changed since the late 1980s.

``We need to give consumers choices,'' he said. ``If choices are available, people will choose to buy alternatives to petroleum.''

A law passed last year requires the state Energy Commission and Air Resources Board to assess different alternate fuels and come up with targets for increasing their use, he said. The deadline is June 2007.

An initiative on the November ballot, the Clean Alternative Energy Act, aims to promote alternative fuels and vehicles and more efficient vehicles through state-funded projects.

Jim Moore, director of the Transportation Engineering program at the University of Southern California, said the fuel cells could provide the ultimate in power for automobiles.

``Eventually automobiles will be powered with fuel cells,'' he said. ``(They) don't really pollute at all; the byproduct of combustion they generate is water vapor.''

He said universities, national laboratories and auto makers are working on them now to create a small enough unit to be viable. He predicted fuel cell-powered cars could be available within 10 years.

``One reason we can fully expect advances in fuel-cell technology -- one of the over-arching policy concerns -- is oil dependence,'' he said. ``At $40 a barrel, there is not nearly enough oil in the ground to go around; at $70 a barrel, there is an ocean of oil available. We're not likely to run out of oil quickly and have ample time to develop new technologies.''

judy.orourke(at)dailynews.com

(661) 257-5255

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Photo:

Victoria Bennett drives her Chevy Cavalier, which uses both regular gas and CNG for fuel.

David Crane/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 9, 2006
Words:918
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