CLEARWATER — Out of a quarter-billion American cars, trucks and buses on the road, only about 120,000 run on natural gas — less than half of a tenth of a percent.
Automotive experts say natural gas has a chicken-and-egg problem: Drivers won't use it without filling stations, but companies won't build stations without drivers. But it is more environmentally friendly than gasoline.
Thanks to Clearwater, the Tampa Bay area is about to get its first natural gas fueling station for vehicles. The City Council voted Thursday night to build one on Hercules Avenue at the entrance to the Clearwater Airpark.
Construction is to start in January and be finished by May.
At first, the bulk of the station's "customers" will be Clearwater garbage trucks that will be converted to run on natural gas. But the station also will be open to the public, for any local residents who drive natural gas-powered vehicles.
It will be an unmanned, self-serve station, said Clearwater Gas managing director Chuck Warrington.
"There's a special nozzle that goes on your car. It's a hard connect — the gas won't flow unless it's locked onto the car. It's a very safe apparatus," Warrington said. "The only problem is that occasionally someone will drive off with the hose. But there's an automatic stop to prevent that from causing any problems."
The Clearwater station will be the first of its kind in the bay area, Warrington said, although another one is planned for Tampa International Airport, and Peoples Gas has gotten a grant to put a station in Ybor City.
Initially, two or three Clearwater trash trucks will be converted to run on natural gas — as will every new garbage truck that Clearwater buys from now on.
Yes, that adds up to relatively few vehicles at first. But based on an economic analysis, officials are betting that creating this fueling station will pay off over the long run.
The city figures that every trash truck converted from gasoline to natural gas will save $12,000 a year on fuel costs. Within four years, those savings will pay for the initial cost of converting the engines, said officials with Clearwater Gas System, a natural and propane gas company that's run by the city.
Clearwater will spend $1.65 million to construct the filling station, along with a $450,000 state grant. The station should pay for itself within seven years, as long as it's fueling 45 garbage trucks and 30 utility trucks by then, said Clearwater Gas operations manager Brian Langille.
The station will pay for itself faster if other vehicle fleets outside Clearwater start converting to natural gas and using the station, he said.
Clearwater officials think other local governments might do that, as well as companies like AT&T, which recently decided to spend $500 million over a decade to convert its vehicle fleet to natural-gas vehicles and other alternatives.
City Council members asked if Clearwater's fleet of police cars could be converted to run on natural gas. But the Police Department has doubts about that for two reasons: Fuel tanks for natural gas take up too much room in a police car's trunk, and officers also worry that the vehicles wouldn't accelerate fast enough.
A few private citizens are interested in making the switch, though.
Rick Carnley, the city's assistant director of operations, said, "We've had several phone calls already from Clearwater citizens asking where they can get quotes to retrofit their current vehicles."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.