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Day 5, Thursday 6 August 1998

This was a day that made me pretty proud to be a Missourian! No offense to California, but I just live there... After staying in Miami, OK last night, I crossed into Missouri in the middle of a construction zone; you'll have to take my word for it that my van is in this picture--I couldn't park close to the sign (the teeny, tiny white square way in the distance is the van).

entering Missouri

My first stop was at Bowgen Fuel Systems in Springfield, MO. I didn't know much about them, only that they have had a compressed natural gas refueling station there at least since 1995, at which time they were the only one in the state. It turns out that they have had a refueling station, used by the local school district and some others as well as their own vehicles, since 1991--that was before any automaker had begun series production of CNG vehicles, so it was all conversions at that time. They are a "one-stop shop" for CNG: they do vehicle conversions, refueling station installations, training, you name it. They have a map that shows the locations of refueling stations they built; there is at least one in all but about five of the fifty states! And that's with one sales rep, a little advertising, plus word of mouth. I have used at least a couple of their stations already; the next one will be in Louisville, KY tomorrow. They have a couple of walls in their shop where they have posted decals from companies for whom they've done installations; this just shows a fraction of their clientele.

Bowgen clients

Bowgen Fuel Systems is a family business; it's hard to believe that such a small company could have had an effect so widespread on the nation's use of alternative fuels. These are some pretty-much unsung pioneers; they don't blow their own horn much, but they decided to use my trip as an opportunity to do a little of that. There were folks from the local ABC, CBS, and NBC TV stations (one guy doubled for CNN) when I got there! This is the first media coverage that I have seen on this journey; I guess there's less cacaphony to drown out a press release in Springfield, MO than in, say, Tulsa, OK.

Bowgen group portrait

Here are some of those who put the "family" in this family business: from left to right are Christina Watts, Shelby Bowgen, and Len Bowgen (who actually got his start with the Southern California Gas Company, where I live, in 1969!). Thanks very much to you all!

Next I drove on to St. Louis to stop at the first public CNG refueling station that has been built there. This station was the "keystone" of this journey; before it was in place, I couldn't get through the midsection of the country. I could have gone to the north, along the route by which I'll be returning west, but I grew up near St. Louis and a trip east without stopping at home would be kind of pointless, I thought. The St. Louis Regional Clean Cities Program is involved with testing and promoting several different alternative fuels in addition to compressed natural gas; in particular, an extensive testing program for biodiesel was undertaken at the Lambert St. Louis Airport.

St. Louis group portrait

Here's a group portrait of the folks who met me there and filled me up (the station is one that accepts cash, by the way); from left to right are Mary Grace Lewandowski of the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council (and the Coordinator for the St. Louis Regional Clean Cities Program), and Daniel Ryan, Laurie Sybert, and Stephen Walker of Laclede Gas Company. Tom Schultz, also of Laclede, arranged the meeting but was unable to be there; sorry I missed you, and thanks to you all!

As you can see behind the folks in the above picture, this refueling station operates at a bit of a disadvantage relative to those in other cities I have visited: fuel is 99.9 cents per gasoline-gallon-equivalent, which is comparable to the local price of mid-grade unleaded gasoline and about a dime more expensive than the cheapest low-octane gasoline. In every other city I have visited, compressed natural gas has had a 20 to 30 cent advantage over cheap gasoline! Apparently the three most important things in real estate (location, location, location) add significantly to the cost because of where the station was installed. But they're plugging away, and having some success; as I said, they and the Bowgen folks made me feel proud to be a Missourian! (And even if the fuel is a little more expensive here than cheap gasoline, well, as we were greeting each other a minivan drove by with a machine-gun sound of knocking from its engine; that never happens with 130-octane natural gas! It's worth a premium price, even if you don't pay one in most places.)

St. Louis Science Center

Since I was right near Forest Park, I drove on over there before heading home for the night. Everybody knows about the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a.k.a. the Gateway Arch; the above picture shows a less-known local example of unusual architecture. This is the McDonnell Planetarium, or at least it used to be called that; it's now part of the St. Louis Science Center. (That's an old Thor missile next to it.) The roof of this building is a "hyperboloid of revolution"--not as common as your average A-frame, yes? I have some fond memories of the place; in particular, one summer in high school I took an astronomy course there as part of the Mark Twain Summer Institute, and as a lab exercise the students got to "drive" the star projector in the dome. Seeing the sky rotating and shifting above you according to your commands feels like being at the controls of a starship! Of course, one time Mr. Abram flashed the house lights and shouted "supernova!" just to give us all heart attacks...

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new 6 August 1998, revised 7 August 1998