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LA CROSSE, Wis. -- In an effort to become a one-stop destination for consumers, Kwik Trip Inc. is going full force into natural gas fueling pumps. The convenience store retailer, with more than 400 locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, is hosting a two-day event that begins tonight to celebrate this initiative.
"We will have an executive dinner for all of the vendors coming into town," Chad Hollett, Kwik Trip's director of distribution and transportation, told CSNews Online. "We will have representation from every major vehicle and equipment manufacturer in the natural gas industry."
Tomorrow's events will begin in the morning with the official launch of a natural gas fueling station at Kwik Trip's La Crosse, Wis., headquarters. Several industry speakers -- as well as Kwik Trip's management -- will speak at the grand-opening ceremony.
Once the ceremony is complete tomorrow, the c-store chain will host a series of invite-only educational sessions, which will then be followed by Kwik Trip's inaugural Natural Gas Tradeshow and Summit, which the company believes will be the largest event of its kind ever held.
"We will have more than 50 natural gas vehicles there," Hollett said. "There will be a large range of cars, from small passenger cars to light-duty pickups to large semis. The intent of this event is to reach out to the end user and show them that natural gas is a functional infrastructure."
Kwik Trip has big future plans for natural gas stations. The company expects to open two more alternative fueling centers by May 18 -- one of which will be located in another La Crosse neighborhood and the other in Sturtevant, Wis. According to Hollett, another two alternative fueling stations will open in Rochester, Minn., and Oshkosh, Wis., this fall. Additional stations could follow in the future, he noted.
Building an infrastructure for natural gas is expensive, but Hollett said the c-store retailer believes the fuel has an excellent future.
"Natural gas started with Kwik Trip on the fleet side," he said. "Our ownership and executive management had the vision to look at natural gas as a fleet option. We felt that if the technology was proven and it worked within our framework, there were certainly savings to be had. We were tasked to go down that path to see if we could make it work from a fleet standpoint."
Simultaneously, Kwik Trip began looking into whether natural gas could work as a fuel alternative on the consumer level, according to Hollett. "Both of those efforts merged into one initiative," he said. "We saw there was a lot of upside in natural gas. We've seen unprecedented advances in the technology. All of our estimations have been exceeded at this point."
Kwik Trip is aware of the risks involved with opening natural gas fueling stations. Only a dozen or so c-store chains have even considered opening CNG fueling stations, with Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores and OnCue Express being among the few that have opened natural gas pumps to date.
CNG use by consumer vehicles is still in its infancy. Also, there simply are not many natural gas-powered vehicles on the road today. In fact, the Honda Civic NG is one of the only natural gas-powered vehicles that consumers can purchase today.
Hollett admitted that it's a fair assessment to say that most consumers are not yet familiar with CNG. However, as Kwik Trip's Natural Gas Tradeshow and Summit will prove, more natural gas vehicles will quickly become available, and the fact that CNG currently costs about $2 less than a gallon of regular gasoline is sure to entice consumers, he said.
"At the Summit, the big three [General Motors, Ford and Chrysler] will all have their latest versions on site for the public to see," Hollett said. "At the same time, there is a lot activity regarding conversions of biofuel vehicles. What we've seen is an overwhelming response once word starts to spread that these vehicles are available. At this point, we've just begun to send out media releases about this and have already received unprecedented attention. We've haven't hit the road and promoted it 'hard' yet."
Hollett did not want to speculate on whether auto manufacturers will go "all in" regarding producing natural gas-powered vehicles. But he did say on an anecdotal basis that when talking to manufacturers, he sees "more of a vested interest and more of a passion on a daily basis" when it comes to designing natural gas vehicles.
"The commitment we've seen from OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] grows each day," he said. "That's a testament that natural gas is gaining legs on the manufacturer end."
Looking ahead, Kwik Trip will continue to push the envelope to promote natural gas to fleets and the general public alike.
"We want to make natural gas a more mainstream option and no longer just a fuel alternative," concluded Hollett. "Kwik Trip is located on the corner of Main [Street] and Main [Street] in so many communities. You've heard that story about the chicken and the egg. Natural gas has often been saddled with that slogan. But by bringing infrastructure to the market and efforts by companies and ownership groups such as the Zietlow family [here] in La Crosse will move the needle when it comes to driving natural gas to the marketplace."