Warner Robins to test truck using natural gas

City looks to achieve savings over gasoline

chwright@macon.comMarch 9, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Years ago, Warner Robins city vehicles operated on natural gas.

But they were slow. And broke down. And few people knew how to fix them. And, above all, unleaded gas was cheaper.

“Now, technology is different. The price of (petroleum) gas is real high. The price of natural gas is real low,” said Montie Walters, city utilities director. “So we’re thinking about easing back into it.”

For now, the city will test one F-150 pickup truck, but officials hope to eventually convert most of the city’s vehicles to natural gas. It could result in a cost savings other cities already have seen, according to Natural Gas Vehicles for America Chairman Douglas Clark.

“The price of natural gas has never been better,” Clark said. “We have an opportunity for a long-term low price in natural gas, so this differential between gas and diesel fuel and natural gas will be here for a long time.”

City Council approved a $9,700 purchase order last week for Atlanta-based CNG Technology Systems to convert a city utilities truck into a hybrid vehicle and install a fueling station.

Walters said the company will install a tank equivalent to the truck’s current 20-gallon tank and train city workers on how to use the filling station. It will operate off of the existing natural gas at the utilities building.

“We’ll park the truck, hook the truck up to it, and it’ll run overnight,” Walters said.

The truck will run on the natural gas until it runs out. If the tank empties during the day, the truck will switch to unleaded fuel.

“This truck will run off of natural gas 90 percent of the time,” Walters said.

Councilwoman Carolyn Robbins said the 2008 meter reading truck will be used to determine whether converting other city vehicles could save the city money.

“We have our own (natural) gas, so our cost of fuel would be quite a bit cheaper,” Robbins said.

According to the American Automobile Association, the average gallon of unleaded gas in Georgia cost $3.66 on Friday. The average price for an equivalent gallon of compressed natural gas was $2.11 on Friday, according to CNGprices.com.

Walters said the conversion will take about three or four weeks. In the meantime, his department will continue collecting data on the truck’s current gas mileage and cost of fuel. Then, new data will be collected after the conversion.

Walters said the city owns more than 500 vehicles among all of its departments.

“Imagine if you saved $1.50 (per gallon) on all those vehicles, what we could spend that money on,” Walters said. “If we get that cost down, that’s money for a lot of things that we could use.”

Clark said the city of Omaha, Neb., saves about $2 per gallon over diesel costs and between $1.70 and $1.80 over petroleum gasoline prices. On heavy duty crew vehicles, it takes about two years to see a return on the investment. On 15-passenger service vans, it takes about nine years.

Robbins and Walters said no time frame has been set for the test vehicle.

Cost, though, is not the only determining factor. The city also will examine the performance of the vehicle.

Robbins said one reason the city changed its fleet back to unleaded gas was because the vehicles didn’t have good acceleration.

She agreed with Walters that research shows technology developments have improved that problem.

“We just want to check everything out and make sure the performance is there before we jump in and buy 10 vehicles,” Walters said.

Meanwhile, City Council plans to have representatives from another Georgia city that has made the conversion speak about their fleet at the council retreat March 22.

Clark said governments across the nation have been making the conversion to natural gas vehicles in recent years, and Warner Robins has followed the same timeline as other cities. Clark is also the president of Metropolitan Utilities District of Omaha, the fifth largest public natural gas utility in the nation.

“About 20 years ago, gasoline prices spiked, and it was advantageous to operate vehicles on natural gas,” Clark said. “Then, as time went on, gasoline and diesel prices had faded, and the effort to support natural gas as a vehicle fuel kind of faded.”

But with petroleum gas prices on a steady incline because of international demand, natural gas vehicles are becoming popular again.

“This country is moving to a natural gas future for powering vehicles, and it’s nice to know that they’re joining on to push this forward,” Clark said. “Because it’s going to happen.”

Walters said natural gas also burns cleaner than petroleum gas, and Warner Robins is particularly interested in anything that can improve air quality for the benefit of Robins Air Force Base. It’s a factor in the ever-feared Base Realignment and Closure process. None have been scheduled, but the city is always preparing for the next.

Eventually, the city could extend its natural gas vehicle offerings, Walters and Robbins said. The city owns its own natural gas and could easily open fueling stations, like Omaha and Atlanta.

Robbins said the city had a meeting with local businesses last year to ask if they would be interested in a Warner Robins fueling station.

Most said they would, including a manufacturer that already has converted its fleet.

“Maybe in the future we could put out a station and let other people use it,” Walters said. “They’ll be buying it (natural gas) from us anyway.”

To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.

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