Fyda Energy Solutions converts vehicles into natural-gas guzzlers

| Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, 11:42 p.m.

At Fyda Energy Solutions LLC in North Strabane on Friday, more trucks were parked outside the garage than came in for business during 2009.

Tractors, dump trucks, snow plows, garbage trucks, and even a few vans — about 50 total — were waiting for a spot to open up in company's busy garage. The draw? A chance to be able to fill their tanks at less than $2 a gallon.

The local unit of the Columbus-based truck dealer Fyda Freightliner Inc. was established five years ago as an outpost to get in on the Marcellus shale rush. It converts trucks, buses and vans to run on the very gas sitting 5,000 feet below their tires.

The garage is so busy that company executives say they have had to turn down business. They say appointments are booked through March, and the operation is on track to convert 400 to 500 vehicles in 2014, a tenfold increase from 2009 when it started.

“We're walking right now. Two years ago we were crawling,” said Tim Hooker, director of business development. “This is the energy capital. So it makes sense to be right here.”

The shale boom has pushed natural-gas motor fuel down to as low as half the price of gasoline, but oil's long hold has limited natural gas to less than 3 percent of that market.

That's where Fyda envisions its opportunity. It is lobbying groups that own a lot of vehicles — shippers, trash haulers, contractors and other fleet owners — to switch to a fuel that's cheaper, cleaner and comes from close to home.

“We're trying to do the right thing for our business and for our country at the same time,” Hooker added.

To get those long-term benefits, Fyda's customers pay anywhere from $7,000 to $60,000 per vehicle for the tanks, engines and systems that make it work, Hooker said.

The company has been using its successful dealership business to fund an expansion, said Tim Fyda, president of the parent company. That business gives Fyda Energy Solutions more advantages than just financial stability, said Rick Price, executive director of Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities, a nonprofit that promotes alternative fuels.

Several local companies, including startups, are trying to move into this market, Price said. Fyda has long-standing relationships with fleet owners and local maintenance that many others can't match, he added. The company prides itself on the ability to work on any type of vehicle and with any type of natural-gas fuel — compressed, liquid or propane — which isn't common, Price said.

“They're way out ahead of everyone else,” he added. “It'll really help our region.”

The McCandless Township Sanitary Authority spent 18 months researching, and then picked Fyda to convert five mid-sized trucks to run on both gasoline and propane. The authority in November won a $21,374 state grant, a little less than half the cost for a project to prove whether propane can be a viable option for municipal fleets. Hooker was the one who introduced authority officials to propane, which is about $4,000 cheaper per conversion and saves them from building a $500,000 fueling station, said Dennis Blakley, the authority's director of operations.

“They were very knowledgeable,” Blakley said. That was “pivotal, with that and the grant option it made the choice to move ahead easy.”

Fyda won a state grant last fall, $375,000, to help figure out how to transform newer, more efficient gasoline engines to run on natural gas. It's one of several initiatives the company is working on to help improve the technology behind natural-gas motor fuels. It works with several universities and has a testing facility at the North Strabane garage that cost more than $1 million to build.

“The fact they've emerged as a leader in this technology is exciting to see. ... These guys are true red, white and blue,” said state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, who wrote a letter supporting the grant request with the Department of Environmental Protection. “That's more jobs, more opportunity. It's showing the ingenuity of our technological ability.”

It could transform Fyda, too. The goal is to make Fyda Energy Solutions a national company, with conversion centers throughout the east and maybe partners to open centers in the west, said Bob Bodkin, director of operations. There's a chance that 20 years down the line, this work could become the biggest part of its business, Fyda said.

“I think it could be huge,” Fyda added. “One thing we all believe in is that natural gas is the fuel of the future for heavy trucks.”

Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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