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Pasco considering natural gas fuel alternative

Pasco is pondering giving drivers another option when they need to fill 'er up: compressed natural gas.

The proposal, initially aimed at diesel-hungry trash trucks, is billed as a way to save money and promote a cleaner fuel. Over the long haul, the pumps could serve school buses, county vehicles and the general public.

"Maybe we can start down the road of bringing natural gas instead of diesel, and all the plumes associated with that," said County Administrator John Gallagher.

Both he and Commissioner Henry Wilson said they are reluctant to require trash haulers to make the switch. They hope to persuade enough of them that it makes good business sense to switch voluntarily.

"We want to make sure we have all the haulers, both the large and small ones, switch their fleet," Wilson said.

A new natural gas garbage truck costs about $35,000 more than a diesel-powered truck. But because natural gas is only about $2 a gallon, the fuel savings offset the higher cost in about two years. The more pricey option is retrofitting older trucks, which costs $80,000 a pop.

Pasco's move follows the lead of Clearwater Gas Service, the city-owned utility that opened Tampa Bay's first natural gas fueling station last month. Clearwater is starting small — it only has one natural gas-powered garbage truck. It will order 10 more next year and plans to have all 70 of its trucks running on natural gas over the next several years.

"As we replace older garbage trucks, we will buy natural gas trucks," said Brian Langille, operations manager of Clearwater Gas.

Clearwater's $1.9 million fueling station should be paid off in seven years, as long as there are 45 garbage trucks filling up with compressed natural gas by then. The Pinellas station is also one of only three in Florida that is open to the public.

Pasco's proposal depends on finding enough demand from the eight private trash haulers that service the county. With enough demand, the county could put a natural gas fueling station at landfills in Shady Hills and Dade City. Another idea is to put a station near State Road 54 and Gunn Highway to also serve trucks from Hillsborough and Pinellas.

Pinellas Commissioner Neil Brickfield said he supports the three-county talks and hopes to get more of his county's vehicles running on natural gas.

"For our heavy equipment, our big trucks, this stuff makes sense," he said. But he added the idea is still in its infancy: "It's going to be 50 pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. We're just working on the first couple of pieces."

Natural gas has long had a supply and demand problem, according to Anddrikk Frazier, the alternative fuel vehicle manager for Tampa Electric Co.

"It kind of has to be a perfect storm or marriage," he said. "You can't have vehicles without the station. But stations are not going to be built without the vehicles."

The idea has a key political backer in Republican state committeeman Bill Bunting. A former New York City garbage truck driver, he said he has been pushing natural gas for years after he saw United Parcel and New York taxis start using the fuel. His wants to see the country use more domestic fuel instead of buying oil from "countries that hate us."

There are now more than a dozen natural gas fueling stations in Florida, up from only a handful two years ago. As stations pop up to serve government vehicles, Bunting said, it could allow more regular drivers to switch.

"People that drive those big RVs, they would convert in a second," he said. "The reason they don't switch is they don't know where the next fueling station is going to be."

The trash hauler Republic Services uses natural gas to power its 50-vehicle fleet in Polk County. There is also a station planned to open next spring at Tampa International Airport, which would run its shuttle vehicles on natural gas. That station would also be open to the public.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Pasco considering natural gas fuel alternative 11/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 11, 2011 7:18pm]
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