When gasoline prices soared to $4 per gallon in the Birmingham, Alabama, area in fall 2009, causing his friend Mark McConville’s airport shuttle business to suffer, Keith Barfield, CPA, told him about a cheaper, more environmentally friendly fuel alternative that he heard mentioned during the 2008 presidential election: compressed natural gas (CNG).
Not only did CNG eventually benefit McConville’s business, but it also was the genesis of "Drive to Inspire" – a record-breaking trip the two friends took this past summer along historic Route 66 to promote alternative fuel and energy independence. AccountingWEB's Jason Bramwell reports.
CNG is made by compressing natural gas to less than 1 percent of its volume at standard atmospheric pressure, according to the Web site CNGNow.com. Consisting mostly of methane, CNG is odorless, colorless, and tasteless. It’s drawn from domestically drilled gas wells or in conjunction with crude oil production.
With CNG available in Birmingham in late 2009 for $1.37 per gallon, McConville – who was Barfield’s first-ever client – purchased two U.S. Navy vans for $9,000 each from California that were already set up to burn CNG. By using CNG instead of gasoline for his shuttle service, The Airport Express, McConville estimates he will save $10,000 per van, per year in fuel costs.
While driving the second van back to Birmingham from California, McConville stopped a few times at points along historic Route 66. This gave him an idea: convert his 1966 Pontiac GTO to run on CNG and drive the car along Route 66 to raise awareness of the benefits of alternative fuel.
"He called me from the road and was very excited about the idea. It was contagious", said the 53-year-old Barfield, who is a founding shareholder of the accounting firm Barfield, Murphy, Shank & Smith.
Barfield said the vision for "Drive to Inspire" was to create a grassroots effort among everyday Americans to end the country’s dependency on foreign oil and switch to CNG as a clean, green alternative fuel.
"We wanted to create a Web site and use social media to involve as many people as possible to help accomplish a trip that needed a lot of planning", he added. "Mark established connections in the CNG parts and tank business, and managed to accumulate all the parts to convert the GTO. The conversion was completed by December 2009."
An obstacle Barfield and McConville had to overcome was the logistics of refueling the GTO. The car had a tank capacity of 16 gallons and could travel approximately 170 miles before it had to be refueled. However, there were gaps of 360 miles between filling stations along Route 66.
"Mark acquired a pickup truck and mounted two bus CNG tanks in the bed that provided another 35-gallon capacity as a refueling truck", Barfield said. "In addition, he acquired a trailer to haul the GTO. This refueling pickup truck would allow us to refuel the GTO twice, but not complete fill-ups. That allowed us to have approximately a 350-mile range.
"Logistically, we were going to need help along the route to refuel", he continued. "We published our route and all the CNG filling stations that were accessible to the public, and [we] asked for help in Flagstaff, AZ, and Amarillo, TX, where no fuel was available at all. Mark developed a working relationship with the Route 66 associations along the route to promote our trip, as well."
To refuel the GTO, a hose had to be connected between the muscle car’s two tanks and the tanks in the refueling pickup truck using a process called equalization, according to Barfield.
"Because the tanks in the truck are full at 3,500 psi [pounds per square inch], the fuel forces itself into the empty GTO tanks, which are at 0 psi", he said. "After about five minutes, the pressure equalizes between the full and empty tanks. What you end up with are tanks in the truck at 1,500 psi and the tanks in the GTO at 1,500 psi."
Altech-Eco, a CNG conversion company, provided a CNG-powered Ford Fusion for publicity on the trip, and IMPCO Technologies Inc., a manufacturer of products and systems that allow engines to operate on cleaner-burning fuel, provided a CNG Ford F150 truck for the journey.
The two friends and their families left Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, California, on June 26 and arrived at Navy Pier in Chicago July 5. Overnight stops were planned in Needles, California; Flagstaff; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Amarillo; Tulsa, Oklahoma; St. Louis; Pontiac, Illinois; and Chicago. Jack Mitchell, the stepfather of Mark’s wife, Libby, drove the refueling truck/trailer rig for the trip.
After stopping at the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville, the group headed to Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon and take photos in front of El Tovar Lodge. This leg of the trip used up all the fuel in the GTO, but even though the buses at Grand Canyon National Park run on CNG to keep the air clean, Barfield and McConville were unable to purchase any from the park service. McConville and his wife had to drive the refueling truck to Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix to obtain CNG so the GTO could be refueled in Flagstaff.
The GTO made it to Gallup, New Mexico, before needing more fuel, which was provided by John Milton of Salt Lake City, who, along with his son, drove a CNG-powered Hummer with 50-gallon tanks of fuel from Utah to Gallup.
While in New Mexico, the group stopped at the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, as well as two well-known motels along the historic highway in Tumencari — Motel Safari and Blue Swallow Motel.
The next stop was Amarillo, where local artist Bob "Crocodile" Lile gave Barfield and McConville a tour of his art museum, as well as a Route 66 tour through Amarillo. The GTO was refueled courtesy of Ronny Oldham, who drove a CNG refueling pickup truck from Oklahoma.
After refueling again at Tulsa Gas Technologies Inc. with the assistance of owner Tom Sewell, the group celebrated the midpoint of their trip at POPS Restaurant in Arcadia, Oklahoma. After holding a press conference the next morning in Tulsa, Barfield and McConville headed to St. Louis, where they encountered a major problem.
"The last filling station for CNG that we were counting on between St. Louis and Chicago had closed because the owner died", Barfield said. "We calculated we couldn’t make it to Chicago without that filling station. Mark talked to Libby about taking the kids home at the end of the day.
"But Laclede Gas Co. came to the rescue", he continued. "Tom Schultz, the man in charge of marketing for Laclede, had been monitoring our trip. On the morning of July 4, he talked a company mechanic into meeting him at their private-fleet filling station and filled all of our tanks to capacity. We calculated it would be just enough to skip the last closed station and make it to Navy Pier."
The original plan was concluding the trip at Navy Pier on July 4, but Barfield and McConville were warned that it might be a bad idea because of the millions of people who were expected to attend the Fourth of July fireworks show there that evening.
"So on the morning of July 5, we refueled the GTO for the last time and drove it all the way down Lake Shore Drive to Navy Pier. There was no fanfare there – just the families tired and worn out from 14 total days on the road", Barfield said.
After Barfield and his children headed back home to Alabama with McConville’s family, Mark and Jack Mitchell hauled the GTO to Washington, D.C., where Alabama congressman Spencer Bachus drove it up to the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
"The week of our trip, CNG-monitoring Web sites reported a spike in the inquiries about natural gas-powered vehicles", Barfield said. "[Mark and I] have been contacted by other muscle car fans about conversions in process. I consider every one of these individuals signs of our success and hope to count them as friends on the journey to energy independence."
After consulting with Guinness World Records, which doesn’t recognize various feats involving cars and distances as a matter of policy, Barfield and McConville believe they set the record for the first alternative fuel-powered muscle car to drive the entire length of Route 66.
"It was a successful, record-breaking trip, and we did make friends from all across the country who want to see us end our dependence on foreign oil and use our domestically produced natural gas to create jobs for the recovery of our economy", Barfield said. "We involved individuals by asking everyone we met to sign our trailer and write us a message to take to Washington. The trailer had more than a hundred signatures on it before the end of the trip."
Earlier this month, Barfield spoke to accounting students at his alma mater, Auburn University, about his career, environmental accounting, and the "Drive to Inspire" journey.
"For me, the focus was helping a client solve a problem of out-of-control fuel prices", he said. "CNG at $1.37 per gallon solved the problem and did it in a unique way that was cleaner and greener for our country and keeps the dollars in the U.S. economy and out of the hands of our enemies.
"I do think that we should measure our carbon footprint for the purpose of measuring our progress in correcting the problems with carbon emissions", Barfield said. "What excites me the most and what we were called upon by President Obama was to have some 'unleashed American innovation.' We put that on the trailer. The trip was American innovation, and I am extremely happy to have been a part of it with all of our friends across the country who made it happen."