Macon-Bibb looks to go beyond gasoline

Few alternative vehicles now, but more may come

jgaines@macon.comJune 30, 2014 

Macon-Bibb County operates hundreds of vehicles, from lawn mowers to garbage trucks. Most of them run on gasoline, but a handful of assorted vehicles run on natural gas, propane, or a mix of gasoline and electricity.

Efforts to use more alternative or environmentally friendly power sources date back years, but the newly consolidated city-county government plans a new push for greater efficiency.

“The mayor wants to find any and all opportunities to go more green,” city spokesman Chris Floore said.

Commissioners are in the process of approving a renewed agreement with Georgia Gas Distributors Inc., which operates a propane pump at the government’s Vehicle Maintenance Facility on Seventh Street.

During a committee discussion last week, Mayor Robert Reichert said he plans to propose buying more vehicles that run on fuels such as compressed natural gas.

Vehicle & Equipment Maintenance Director Sam Hugley said that’s what he’s heard, too.

“According to the mayor, we’re going to be looking at it real strong over the next couple years,” Hugley said.

There have been alternative-fuel pushes before, but they fizzled.

“At one time we had about 80 natural gas patrol cars,” Hugley said. Now there are just three government-owned vehicles that run on natural gas: a truck at the landfill, one lawn mower, and the Zamboni that smoothes the ice at the Macon Coliseum, he said.

A grant paid for running some police cars on propane, he said. Those were used for K-9 officers, but now there’s just one left, Hugley said.

“We did three of them a couple of years ago. As they got torn up or wrecked, we just never put the system on new vehicles,” he said.

The original agreement for a propane pump at Vehicle Maintenance dates back to 2003. The new proposal is for a two-year contract, with automatic renewals.

The pumping station was installed at Georgia Gas’ expense, and the company continues to own it, but government vehicles can fuel up there. When it was first installed, it was thrown open to public use as well, Hugley said. But on top of the scarcity of propane-powered vehicles, the former city government ran into liability concerns over letting residents or companies in to use a facility that’s normally closed to the public. Now it’s limited to government use, he said.

Maintenance on the alternative-fuel vehicles is fairly simple, and the three- to six-year warranty “helps a lot,” Hugley said.

Each type of vehicle has its advantages, he said.

“The difference is, you get a lot more range out of the propane than you do the natural gas,” Hugley said. That’s a big help in keeping workers on the road longer, he said.

A truck that runs on natural gas might cost $50,000 more than a standard truck, but that is made up over several years of use because the fuel is so much cheaper, Hugley said.

As for gasoline-burning electric hybrids, the former city government bought three Ford Escape SUVs, while the former Bibb County bought perhaps half a dozen Toyota cars, he said.

The current effort to move toward cleaner fuel burning vehicles is better organized and more likely to work than past attempts, Hugley said. “I think it’s a great thing,” he said.

The former city and county both had “Green Teams,” made up of employees from all departments who looked for ways to be more environmentally friendly and save money.

Those disappeared with consolidation, but they unofficially restarted under the new government, Floore said.

One of the Green Team’s mandates is to look at installing more electric vehicle charging stations around town. Bibb County installed one, which is free to the public, in front of the county courthouse.

Whatever power source they use, exploring alternative-fueled and greener vehicles are an administration priority, Floore said.

“The mayor himself drives one of the hybrids,” he said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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