"Green Nuns" Step on the Gas - UPDATED

Ray Holan is an accomplished auto mechanic, biofuel advocate, author of the book Sliding Home: A Complete Guide to Driving Your Diesel on Straight Vegetable Oil and regular feature contributor to AutoblogGreen.

The 47-acre grounds of the Congregation of St. Joseph of Cleveland, Ohio would put the most environmentally conscious neighborhood to shame. Oh, sure, there's the usual recycling activities of composting kitchen waste, collecting aluminum cans, glass, plastic, and paper. But it doesn't stop there. How about organic gardening, a "Styrofoam-free" campus, cloth napkins instead of paper, recycling bins in the retreat center for visitors and using a "green" cleaning company even though it's more expensive than traditional services? When religious women make a joint commitment to sustainability, you won't find the word "half-way" in their dictionary.

There was so much environmental consciousness and energy efficiency at play on the campus, I almost forgot to focus on the real object of my visit: their fleet of 12 Honda Civic GX's powered by compressed natural gas (CNG).

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UPDATE: Added author's byline.

CNG may sit at the back of the alternative fuels bus while E85, hydrogen, and biodiesel hog the front rows, but it's got a lot going for it.  Although CNG is not a renewable fuel, we have a considerable domestic supply of it and an infrastructure ready to distribute it. The vast majority of buildings in the U.S. are heated with natural gas.

CNG is extremely clean-burning compared to comparable gasoline vehicles. CNG used as vehicle fuel reduces exhaust emissions of carbon monoxide by 90%, carbon dioxide by 25%, and nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 35%. The Honda Civic GX is classified by the EPA as a PZEV (Partial Zero Emission Vehicle).

It also has a killer octane rating of 120+. Zoom, zoom. This supports higher compression ratios in internal combustion engines and that yields higher power and better fuel economy. The Honda Civic GX, for example, runs a 12.5:1 compression ratio. It's rated at 30 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. CNG is normally dispensed in "equivalent gallons" where one "equivalent gallon" equals to 121.5 cubic feet of CNG.

Unlike, E85 and biodiesel, CNG as a vehicle fuel can be run in spark ignition AND compression ignition (i.e. diesel) engines. Best of all, CNG pricing is more stable than traditional petroleum fuels and cost 15-40% less than gasoline or diesel. This is due in part to escaping federal and state excise (i.e. highway usage) taxes.

All this sounds pretty good, right? So why aren't more vehicles running on CNG? Three main reasons: vehicle cost, fuel storage capacity, and safety concerns. 

CNG vehicles cost between $3,500 and $6,000 more than their gasoline-fueled counterparts. This is due to the high cost of the on-board fuel storage cylinders that store CNG at 3,000-3,600 psi. Spun aluminum or steel wrapped in a fiberglass cocoon cost more than a few coppers. There are federal tax incentives, however, available that partially offset the higher purchase price.

Despite the high storage pressures, CNG has a lower "energy density" than gasoline. That is, you need more storage space than a gasoline-powered car for the same driving range. The CNG tank in the Honda Civic GX hogs most of the trunk space. Even though its 30-34 mpg efficiency seems high, the Civic is limited to a driving range of only 200 miles per fill. On the plus side, a homeowner with a Honda Civic GX in his or her garage can get a MyPhill CNG fueling unit installed to fuel the vehicle overnight from the household natural gas line.

Safety concerns about CNG are, if you'll pardon the expression, overblown.  Although CNG is a flammable gas, it has a narrow flammability range. CNG disperses rapidly and doesn't pool like liquid fuels. Vehicle tanks are constructed with a fuse-type (i.e. weak link) device designed to fail first in the event of an impact, preventing a tank rupture. Sister Mary related a story about one of the sisters being rear-ended on the road driving one of the Honda GX's. The entire rear end of the vehicle was toast, but the CNG tank (located between the rear shock towers) escaped without a scratch.

The Back Story

The Sisters of St. Joseph are primarily a teaching order, so they've done a lot of teaching over the years. Apparently all that teaching required them to learn a few things, too. Given the contemplative aspects of religious life, they thought a lot about the interconnectedness of life. Suffice it to say, they are into the BIG PICTURE and the whole green energy thing in a big way. Sister Mary puts it succinctly, "We want to leave a smaller footprint."

I was delighted to hear that battles were waged over the years in the nunnery to gain consensus and move forward on the environmental initiatives. It put my own secular battles with my wife over using compact fluorescent light bulbs (me for, she against) in perspective. "I lost the battle for a geothermal system," Sister Mary related with a philosophical sigh. Seems inside a religious community, just like a secular community, the barriers to better energy efficiency are more personal habit (no pun intended) and political than they are technical.

How the Honda Civic GXs Came Home

Sister Mary blames blames the green thing on her attending a Clean Cities Coalition conference in 1999 sponsored by the local Earth Day Coalition where an intrepid Honda sales saw a new market in open-minded nuns. After spending a week with a CNG-powered Civic (and some internal wrangling), the center budgeted for four new Honda's per year and now has a fleet of 12. The community, not immune to hybrid hype, has also added a few used Toyota Prius hybrids to the collection.

Why Honda Civic GX's? "It was the cleanest vehicle in the U.S. and it was built here in Ohio," Sister Mary says. Fueling them may not have required a miracle, but it has been a challenge.  Early on, the nuns would motor down to the local gas company's service yard and fill up from their tanks. They would use a special card that would add their fuel purchase to the monthly heating bill of the convent. This method had the advantage of a quick fill time (about 3-5 minutes) and the disadvantage of needing to travel a few miles to get the fuel.

Sister Mary and the troops then heard about a home fueling system for CNG powered vehicles from Fuelmaker Corporation of Toronto, Canada that could be connected to their existing natural gas line. The system fuels four vehicles at a time and takes 2-6 hours. The nuns applied to a local foundation, the Gund Foundation, for funds to help defray the cost of purchase and installation and were eventually awarded the home fueling unit.

Religious Living with CNG Vehicles

The Civic GXs have proven to be stalwart companions for the good sisters. Mechanical problems have been minimal. Fuel costs have been manageable - especially in these days of $3/gallon gasoline. Besides the aforementioned traffic accident (not the nun at the wheel's fault, remember), one other anecdote bears retelling. Someone actually stole one of the GXs. Apparently, the parts were the object of the thieves' affection, because the car was recovered missing quite a few pieces. Just imagine St. Peter at the pearly gates thundering when these dudes show up: "You stole a car from a bunch of nuns?!?!"

You Can Buy a CNG Vehicle

You don't have to take a vow and enter the convent to own a CNG vehicle. CNG wheels have been marketed primarily to fleet owners, but John or Jane Q. Citizen can order up a new one from a Chevy dealer (e.g. Chevy Silverado pickup), GMC dealer (GMC Sierra), or Honda dealer.

Used vehicles that run on CNG can be had as well. You probably won't find them listed on cars.com, but the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition website lists quite a few choices. You'll find a bewildering array of vans, compact vehicles like Chevy Cavaliers, Ford Contours, and Honda Civics, and full size sedans like Ford's Crown Victoria. Many of them are being sold by municipalities or state agencies. Prices run from about $3,000 to $17,000 depending upon equipment, age, and odometer mileage.

Bidding the Old Ways Adieu

You'd think a religious community - especially a group of nuns with roots back to 1650- would be a bastion of tradition. Well, yes and no. There was certainly evidence of respect for tradition at the over 100-year old St. Joseph Center facility. But there's revolution in the making, as well. Sister Mary put it like this, "We're the yeast in the mix. Our call is to be 'counter-cultural'. We have a chance to create the culture of the future. That means, in part, letting go of what's not productive." The term "transformational" frequently cropped up our conversation with Sister Mary. I'd say her convent's fleet of clean-burning, alternative fuel Honda Civic GXs qualifies as "transformational transportation".

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