• WisBusiness

Monday, May 14, 2012

GreenBiz: Kwik Trip commits to natural gas


By Gregg Hoffmann
In the past, many vehicle manufacturers said they would produce more natural gas vehicles if the fuel was available in more places.

Meanwhile, fuel station owners said they'd offer more natural gas if more vehicles ran on it.

Kwik Trip, a La Crosse-based convenience and fuel chain, wants to change that discussion.

"We don't like to hear statements like that," said Chad Hollett, director of Kwik Trip's distribution division. "It can lead to the conclusion that the problem is unsolvable. We don't believe that is so.

"Kwik Trip has decided to take the lead and connect the dots in our tri-state region (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, where the company is known as Kwik Star). We want to create a functional infrastructure for natural gas."

Connecting the dots and creating a functional infrastructure mean Kwik Trip will provide natural gas at several fueling stations, add 20 natural gas vehicles, and eventually more, to its own fleet and provide technical assistance and research to companies that want to convert to natural gas.

Kwik Trip kicked off this effort with what was billed as the largest natural gas trade show and summit in the country Thursday at its La Crosse campus. More than 50 vendors took part in the event. Seminars were offered by the Clean Vehicle Foundation, Xcel Energy, Chesapeake Energy, General Motors, CenterPoint Energy and Paccar/Wisconsin Kenworth.

The first Kwik Trip natural gas fueling station was opened at its own Fleet Center on April 10. The price was listed at $1.56 per gallon, less than half what gasoline was selling for at the time.

This month, Kwik Trip is opening a station in downtown La Crosse and Sturtevant in Racine County. In the fall, stations will be opened in Oshkosh and Rochester, Minnesota.

"Our goal is to provide natural gas alternatives along all major corridors in our service area," Hollett said.

Plans call for expanding availability of natural gas throughout the current network of Kwik Trip stores and in new locations.

CEO Don Zietlow credits a friend of his grandson with making the company more aware of the potential of natural gas. The friend, a part-time employee of the company, became familiar with compressed natural gas while serving in the Merchant Marine.

"If we can use natural gas from our own country, and not import all that crude oil, how much better that will be for the country," Zietlow said. "It's the right thing to do."

Natural gas comes in compressed form (CNG), gas under pressure which remains clear, odorless and non-corrosive. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is produced when natural gas is cooled to minus 259 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of LNG's increased driving range, it is used in heavy duty vehicles, grocery trucks and transit buses, according to Steve Zeitlow, Don's son and director of petroleum operations.

Ruanna Hayes, alternative fuels specialist for Kwik Trip, believes CNG is the fuel of the future. "We'd like to see it become more mainstream." she said.

Kwik Trip emphasizes that natural gas can be pumped in a similar way to gasoline. The company has produced information brochures and online information on steps to fueling a CNG vehicle.

Proponents of natural gas maintain it burns cleaner than gasoline or diesel fuel. The proponents also point out that natural gas is abundant in North America and can be produced domestically at a relatively low cost.

Primarily because of the cost factors, trucking companies, transit organizations, school bus companies and others are very interested in natural gas. Vendors at the May 10 event included Mack Truck, Peterbilt, International, Volvo, Honda, GM and other truck manufacturing companies.

Federal tax credits and other incentives for CNG vehicles expired at the end of 2011. The Walker administration distributed about $8.4 million in federal funds through the State Energy Office for infrastructure and vehicles.

Kwik Trip received a small state grant for the fueling station, but primarily is using its own resources in its effort.

"We feel strongly it can stand on its own," Hollett said. "We feel it is the right thing to do and makes business sense."

-- Hoffmann has written many columns and features for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com over the years. He writes GreenBiz column monthly.

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