Hearst Castle

The Hearst Castle State Historical Monument, commonly known as Hearst Castle®, was built for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst between 1919 and 1947. This massive property housed much of the art and artifacts that Hearst collected over the years. Seven years after his death, Hearst Castle opened its doors to the public in 1958.

Shuttle bus service began making the five mile trip from the Visitor Center to the Castle shortly thereafter. Every year, approximately 800,000 people from around the world come to visit Hearst Castle, each one making the 10-mile round-trip ride up the hill and back down on a natural gas-powered shuttle bus.

"Our mechanics tell us that they’re happy that they don’t come home smelling like diesel anymore!"

The shuttles that transport visitors to and from Hearst Castle use compressed natural gas (CNG) and are managed by First Transit. Al Rusco, general manager at First Transit, is very pleased with his CNG-powered fleet, especially the reduced operational costs.

“Because we make our own fuel, we see significant savings in our total operating costs vs. diesel. This savings allows us to cover any increased maintenance costs associated with the CNG engines. Overall, we are very happy with CNG.” Mr. Rusco offers some insight on some of the subjective benefits of operating a CNG-powered fleet. “Our mechanics tell us that they’re happy that they don’t come home smelling like diesel anymore!”

Keith French serves as First Transit’s maintenance manager at Hearst Castle. He believes that there are still significant misconceptions among fleet managers in the region about operating and maintaining a CNG fleet, but he hopes they can benefit from his real-world experiences. “A lot of people warned me that CNG engines would be unreliable and expensive to run, but it’s just not true. We’ve found these John Deere engines to be quite reliable and the cost is comparable to diesel.”

Plans for “Greener” Shuttle Buses

In the late 1990s, many of Hearst Castle’s diesel-fueled buses in the fleet were nearing the end of their planned life cycle and were in need of replacement. Ed Redig, in his position as superintendent, was responsible for the operation and maintenance of the shuttle fleet and began to seriously investigate alternative fuel options for the fleet.

But which was the best technology? In many areas, using CNG can be challenging if local refueling options are limited. However, since the Hearst Castle buses return to base every 10 miles, concerns about infrastructure were minimal, and the operation presented itself as an ideal candidate for proven CNG technology.

The two key elements for the upgrade were new vehicles and a CNG fuel station. For vehicles, a fleet of fifteen 57-passenger, 40-foot buses would be required, and a Blue Bird All American powered by a John Deere CNG engine was specified. Fortunately, SoCalGas® was able to step in and assist with the specifying and ordering process to best utilize grants and other funding. There was also a federal tax credit available for each of these CNG powered buses.

SoCalGas’ Longest New Service Ever

Solving the fueling issue proved to be a much greater challenge than acquiring new vehicles. This is where the expertise of the SoCalGas NGV team really came into play. The first obstacle was that Hearst Castle was located in an area served by high-BTU natural gas that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) considered to be “out of compliance” with their natural gas fuel regulation.

Using the typical natural gas composition for the area, SoCalGas worked with John Deere to confirm that the natural gas would indeed perform safely and cleanly. The manufacturer also confirmed that they would honor the factory warranty based on this fuel composition. Finally, SoCalGas worked with CARB to get an exemption granted for Hearst Castle to use the local fuel in their buses.

The Hearst Castle Visitor Center didn’t have natural gas service at all. As a result, a new natural gas pipeline had to be run 3.1 miles from Cambria north to the Visitor Center. The polyurethane pipe was trenched underground for almost the entire distance and required a permit from the California Department of Transportation. This was the longest new service run ever made by SoCalGas for a CNG station. This phase of the project was partially funded through “allowances” from SoCalGas, which are credits based upon the projected level of natural gas use. For maximum reliability and redundancy, the station utilizes two compressors. There are separate time-fill posts for each bus, allowing them all to simultaneously refuel overnight.

Biggest Improvement to Air Quality Ever!

Upgrading the fleet from diesel to an alternative fuel could present some serious financial challenges. Fortunately, most of the incremental costs for vehicles and station building (beyond the cost of replacing the fleet with diesel buses) were funded by grants and other funding sources. These included grants from the San Luis Obispo County APCD, CARB and other state and federal programs.

"An estimated 100 tons of emissions would be saved over the project life cycle."

The scope of the project was so large that it absorbed 100 percent of the local APCD budget for two continuous years, but the local impact of the project was enormous. According to SoCalGas account executive Mike Bolin, “When the station was completed and the buses were up and running, the Hearst Castle project had a greater impact on emissions than all of the other clean air transportation projects completed in San Luis Obispo County in the previous five years combined.” An estimated 100 tons of emissions would be saved over the project life cycle.

Plans for the Future

By 2010, the Hearst Castle CNG bus fleet had been in service for 10 years, which is the end of their planned life cycle. As grants and other funding become available, the buses will be replaced, and the fleet will continue providing clean transportation for millions more Hearst Castle visitors in the future.

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These case study materials are provided solely for information purposes, and are not a forecast or guaranty of any savings or results that will be obtained from using natural gas. A number of factors can influence actual results, including future gas prices, equipment used, actual usage and other operating conditions. Specifically, SoCalGas does not endorse or provide any warranty of fitness for any particular purpose or use of any equipment selected by customer.