CASPER, Wyo. — If compressed natural gas-powered vehicles are the way of the future, someone's got to be able to fix them.
The only problem — at least in Tracey Hind's mind — is that not many auto technicians actually know how.
The vehicles — which burn cleaner and are cheaper to drive than those that use traditional fuel — are equipped with, among other things, high-pressure fuel systems, unlike a gas-powered model. Making a mistake with fuel at high pressure can be dangerous.
"There are a lot of similarities" with traditional vehicles, Hind said. "They've got the same engine. But if you don't know how a high-pressure fueling system works, that's bad."
Hind is an automotive technology instructor at Western Wyoming Community College. He is trying to make sure technicians around the state never have that problem. The college started offering an alternative fuel vehicle technology certificate program in August.
The program is the result of years of planning and research by Hind, who said he's trying to keep Western Wyoming on the "cutting edge" of vehicle technology.
"I've always been interested in alternative fuels," he said. "NGVs make so much sense."
The certificate program is a 39-credit track that includes lessons in high-pressure systems, retrofitting natural gas technology and regular maintenance of the vehicles. The program also includes lessons about hybrid and light-duty diesel fuel systems.
Hind created classes and requirements with the help of industry partners like Encana Oil and Gas and Questar and an advisory board composed of industry representatives. He said involving industry will be key to keeping the program current, especially as compressed natural gas — or CNG — technology evolves.
"We're looking to keep this program on track and useful to everyone involved," he said.
The program may be hitting Wyoming at just the right time. The state Legislature committed funds last year to convert part of the state's vehicle fleet to natural gas. Earlier this month, the Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee approved two CNG bills — one creating a loan program for new infrastructure, the other mandating state agencies and school districts buy at least half their future vehicles equipped with CNG technology.
The Wyoming Natural Gas Vehicle and Infrastructure Coalition is also working to extend the technology's reach in the state. There are now five public CNG fueling stations around Wyoming, with one more planned and 16 desired.
Hind said he has seven students in the first alternative fuel class this semester. If natural gas gets more popular, the students certified to work with the vehicles could have an advantage.
"They're more marketable," he said. "The more skills they have, the easier it is to walk into shops and say, 'I know this, give me a job.'"
Hind's also offering work force development training for established mechanics, which he said has generated a lot of interest. He expects to offer his first extra class in February, with several more to follow.
"There's a lot of really great technicians out there who'd like to or are required to work with this technology," he said. "And the technology's only going to get better. That's the way it always works."
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com