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Volkswagen NGVs in Europe Wrestle With Fueling Safety Problem

Beleaguered German automaker Volkswagen AG has found itself in a new public controversy among its natural gas-powered vehicles in Europe, which are part of a large recall of VW natural gas vehicles (NGV). VW has no NGV sales in the United States.

Earlier in September a Volkswagen Touran exploded while its compressed natural gas (CNG) tank was being refilled in an Aral CNG fueling station in Duderstadt in Germany's Lower Saxony. There were no fatalities, but emergency responders found debris from the blast hundreds of meters away. The driver was away from the vehicle at the time of the explosion and was not injured.

NGV sector representatives in the United States are monitoring the situation through their global and European counterparts, one Washington, DC-based representative told NGI on Thursday. Corrosion weakening the fuel tank walls -- the reason for the VW recall -- is suspected as the cause of the Touran incident, the source said.

Within Germany the aftershock from the blast is affecting the NGV sector with other fueling outlets for a number of days discontinuing their sale of CNG. Aral recommended this move to its affiliated fueling locations, and following that action, at least four major gasoline stations followed suit: Esso, Shell, Jet and Total. Many of those CNG providers have since lifted the moratorium, the U.S. NGV representative said.

According to global automotive sources, some 100,000 cars in Germany are powered by CNG, and their drivers at one point had literally run out of CNG and had to switch to the much smaller auxiliary gasoline tanks in their vehicles. The majority of Germany’s CNG cars are Volkswagens.

Reports from Germany said the affected car was part of the larger recall of Volkswagen’s CNG cars involving the inspection and possible change-out of their fuel tanks. This wasn’t done yet for the Touran whose tank exploded.

Volkswagen is recommending that drivers stop using CNG until the NGV is checked out. Many Volkswagen drivers with CNG cars have no other choice: Subsequently, when Aral resumed the sale of CNG, it excluded Volkswagen Touran, Passat and Caddy cars, according to local German automotive publications.

While officials are being "tight-lipped" regarding the aftermath, German government and NGV sector officials are involved in the ongoing investigation. There haven't been similar incidents in the United States, but the U.S. industry eventually will apply the lessons learned from the German investigation, according to U.S. NGV officials.

Back in the United States, Clean Energy Fuels Corp. announced on Thursday the opening of the last link in a chain of CNG and liquefied natural gas (LNG) fueling stations along the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle with the completion of a new station along Interstate Highway 5 near Medford, OR. This is the first public NGV fueling station in Oregon.

The new station is located in a Pilot Travel Center in Central Point, OR, dispensing both LNG and CNG on a 24/7 basis, and providing a fueling stop for Matheson Trucking, a U.S. Postal Service contract carrier, on its California to Seattle runs.

"The addition of this station allows us the strategic advantage of being able to rely on natural gas throughout the entire distribution system," said Joshua Matheson, vice president of operations. He said the Matheson fleet covers about 36 million miles annually and the Los Angeles-to-Seattle run is a major route for the company.

The Oregon station gives NGV drivers that ability to drive from San Diego to Seattle using Newport Beach, CA-based Clean Energy's "America's Natural Gas Highway," a Clean Energy spokesperson noted. The fueling infrastructure for NGVs is continuing to grow, according to Chad Lindholm, Clean Energy sales vice president.

"By opening stations like Central Point and connecting the I-5 corridor, we can offer our customers the fuel and the infrastructure they need to make the transition to alternative fueling as seamless as possible," Lindholm said.

Meanwhile, alternative fuel buses of all shapes and sizes were on display at the annual three-day BusCon 2016 exposition in Indianapolis, which ended last Wednesday. Major school bus manufacturer Blue Bird Corp. unveiled a variety of alternative fuel buses, including ones operating on CNG.

The Blue Bird Vision and T3RE models were promoted as being available with varying engine sizes and a variety of fuel types. The 48-passenger Vision and it Ford 6.8-liter engine can operate on CNG, gasoline, and propane (Autogas), and it also uses a Cummins ISB6.7-liter diesel engine. The T3RE operates with either CNG or diesel, featuring either Cummins ISB 6.7 or ISL 8.9-liter diesel engines.

Blue Bird has produced more than 550,000 buses since its founding in 1927, and it has more than 180,000 buses operating today, covering all segments of the commercial market: transit, shuttle and tour/charter buses.

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