Auto show at CenturyLink Center to highlight alternative-fuel vehicles

The quality of detailer Chris Bellinger's work is reflected in the paint of a Lexus of Omaha car as the CenturyLink Center Omaha is polished Wednesday for the Midlands International Auto Show, which opens today.


Would you hesitate to buy a car if there were only two gas stations in the metro? How about if there was nowhere to fuel up on Interstate 80 between Lincoln and Denver?

That's a drawback to buying a car that runs on compressed natural gas, a low-cost fuel popular in dense urban areas and in gas-rich states like Oklahoma and Utah but not in the Midwest.

“The problem is, you don't have enough fuel stations around here,” said Shannon Steenbock, new car manager at Superior Honda of Omaha, which has two Honda Civic Natural Gas vehicles in stock and expects to sell 12 of the cars this year.

Anxiety about where their next fill-up or power charge would come from is keeping environmentally minded Nebraskans from investing in efficient electric or alternative-fuel vehicles, proponents say. They see expanding the infrastructure to serve those vehicles as an essential first step in developing new markets in Nebraska for the makers of the cars, the dealers that sell them and the utilities that power them.

The Midwest International Auto Show beginning today features a new Nebraska group that is working to create both awareness of alternative-fuel vehicles and the infrastructure to power and service them, whether that's electric charging stations, gas stations offering E85 ethanol blends or CNG fueling stations.

Members of the group — who include representatives of the City of Omaha, Metropolitan Utilities District, Omaha Public Power District, Black Hills Energy and the Nebraska Ethanol Board — will answer questions. They will be in their own booth displaying a Ford F-150 that runs on CNG, as well as a University of Nebraska-Lincoln competition car that runs on E85.

In addition, several auto makers will have the latest green cars on display, including the Civic Natural Gas.

This is the first time that the show, in its 20th year, has highlighted electric and alternative-fuel vehicles.

Proponents say the benefits of alternative fuels include cost savings per mile, lower or no tailpipe emissions, and the ability to “buy American” fuel. In addition to limited fueling availability, the downsides can include a higher upfront cost. The Civic Natural Gas costs about $8,000 more than a similar gasoline-powered model.

With several recent developments, alternative vehicles, especially those running on E85 ethanol, electricity and Compressed Natural Gas, may see their popularity grow here:

>> A grant received in partnership with the Kansas City Clean Cities Coalition will enable the new Nebraska group to hire a paid coordinator this spring, a step toward meeting the requirements of becoming designated a Nebraska Clean Cities Coalition under the U.S. Department of Energy. The program's goal is to reduce petroleum consumption and air pollution.

>> MUD and Black Hills Energy are actively marketing CNG to fleet managers. Some 250 vehicles in the Omaha metro area are running on CNG now.

>> MUD is planning a third public CNG station in the metro area, in addition to stations at 53rd and L Streets and 64th Avenue and Center Street.

>> MUD will be the provider of liquefied natural gas at Flying J truck stops in Gretna, North Platte, Neb., and Des Moines to serve over-the-road truckers. This could lead to the addition of CNG fuel at those locations for passenger vehicles.

>> The Nebraska Ethanol Board is working with retailers to add new E85 pumps around Nebraska. There are now about 80. The board also has campaigns to help drivers locate the fuel and to educate owners of newer cars that their vehicles may be able to run on E85.

>> Auto manufacturers also are creating new options to ease buyers' anxiety, including bifuel vehicles that run on both gasoline and CNG, or on gasoline and electricity. Several will be on display at the auto show.

Despite the advances, growth in Nebraska is expected to be slow.

E10, considered a standard fuel, is available at most gas stations, but “it's taken about 40 years” to develop the market to this point, said Todd Sneller, administrator for the Nebraska Ethanol Board. Ethanol also has the advantage that flex-fuel vehicles don't cost more than their standard counterparts. Developing a market for a new alternative fuel starts with fleets rather than individual car owners.

“There's an evolution that will occur,” Sneller said. “It was a novelty fuel for a while. Ethanol was a novelty fuel 30 years ago.”

About the auto show

What: Midlands International Auto Show, sponsored by The World-Herald. Displays will include more than 300 vehicles, including new cars, trucks and motorcycles and classic cars.

Where: CenturyLink Center Omaha, 455 N. 10th St.

When: Today through Sunday. Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. today; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Admission: $9, ages 13 through 64; $6, ages 65 and up, or anyone with a military ID; $5, ages 7 through 12; free for age 6 and younger. Coupons for $1 off are available at participating Omaha-area auto dealers.

Other highlights: Included in the price of admission is the Brain Busters exhibit of puzzles, mazes and games. Tickets are available for $1 during the show for a raffle of a donated 2013 Chevrolet Camaro, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Nebraska. The winner will be drawn Jan. 16.

Video: Tour some of the cars at the 2013 Midlands International Auto Show

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