Alex Kovalchuk‘s 14th-floor office in the BB&T Building provides a striking view of downtown Asheville and the mountains beyond. But on this particularly hot and hazy August afternoon, smog obscures the scenery.
“I’m not saying we’ll be able to fix it all,” says Kovalchuk, the president of TransEco Energy Corp. “But it could have a big effect.” The company, which recently opened a compressed-natural-gas fueling station in Arden, stands ready to deliver the “whole package” for motorists wishing to convert to a clean-burning alternative fuel. Half a mile down the road, the company’s 27,000-square-foot facility converts light-duty sedans, midsize pickups or vans, heavy-duty trucks and even buses to run on CNG.
Kovalchuk, who moved here from Ukraine in 1995, says he vowed long ago that he wouldn’t be lured away from Asheville by opportunities in bigger cities, resolving to stay rooted and launch his own company. And after years of research and analysis and a roughly $5 million investment, TransEco Energy seems poised for growth. “In Asheville, the projection is to have about seven CNG stations within the next year,” he reports. But those stations would be useless without CNG-powered vehicles, he notes, “So that’s why we decided to do the whole package”: conversions, inspections, fuel, servicing and even leasing and selling CNG cars.
Natural gas is one of the cleanest-burning—and least-expensive—alternative fuels available. Compared with gasoline, burning CNG produces 90 percent less carbon monoxide and particulate matter, and some 60 percent less nitrogen oxide (a gas linked with ground-level ozone formation), according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Depending on the type of vehicle, it produces 10 to 40 percent less greenhouse gases—and no lead or sulfur.
TransEco Energy is currently charging about $1.50 per gas-gallon-equivalent for CNG. For businesses like UPS (one of TransEco’s customers), savings on fuel could cover the conversion cost relatively quickly, he says. Meanwhile, individual motorists have traveled from as far away as Oklahoma and Kansas City to get their vehicles changed over. When Kovalchuk asked one customer from the Midwest why she wanted to convert, she replied simply, “I want to drive clean.”
“I was impressed,” he says, echoing her words.
At the conversion facility, General Manager Sandusky Parris shows off the stainless-steel CNG tanks installed in a van that’s up on a lift. “One of the questions people typically ask is whether the natural gas will explode if someone runs into them,” he notes. But the tanks, says Parris, are practically indestructible: In tests, manufacturers have exploded dynamite near them, dropped them from cranes to simulate a crash impact and even fired guns at them. “It’s safe,” he declares, rapping on the tank.
A driver’s only real concern, says Parris, should be whether their vehicle can be converted. “You can convert any gasoline engine to natural gas,” he explains. “The main thing is, [does the manufacturer] make a kit—and is it EPA-certified?” Finding an approved conversion kit can be challenging, and conversion costs start at around $2,000 to $3,000, says Kovalchuk, though tax credits can pay back up to 85 percent of that.
Bill Eaker, who heads up the regional Clean Vehicles Coalition, says TransEco Energy’s presence here may encourage cleaner local fleets. “This will be a major boost to our efforts,” he says.
But when it comes to alternative fuels, notes Eaker, “There is no silver bullet.” Every option has drawbacks. CNG may reduce dependence on foreign oil, but it’s still a nonrenewable fossil fuel that emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In its more compact liquid form—which allows increased storage capacity—the gas must be pumped by professionals wearing HAZMAT suits, and it must be kept in cryogenic cylinders at minus 323 degrees F. Meanwhile, owners of CNG-only cars will have to plan road trips based on where the fueling stations are. (Cars can be converted to run on CNG only or on both CNG and gasoline.)
Yet amid suffocating heat and rising gas prices, the air-quality benefits and potential savings can’t be overlooked. “We’re hoping people will see the benefit of natural gas,” says Parris, “and what it can do for the environment.”