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Echols visits with natural gas car
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Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols drove through Covington Thursday in his compressed natural gas (CNG) powered car as he works to raise awareness about the benefits of CNG vehicles.

Few vehicles currently run on compressed natural gas in Georgia because there are so few public fueling stations, but Atlanta Gas Light is hoping to prompt the building of 10-15 stations across metro Atlanta.

The Georgia Public Service Commission is set to vote in mid-October on whether to allow Atlanta Gas to use $12 million from the Universal Service Fund to partner with private investors, who would build, own and operate the fueling stations.

The fund normally is used to extend pipelines to promote growth or benefit underserved areas, but this would be an alternate use given the lack of recent development.

Echols, who spoke at the Covington Kiwanis Club, was only able to travel to Covington in his CNG car because Snapping Shoals EMC allowed him to fill up at their fueling station at their Brown Bridge Road facility.

Snapping Shoals has 28 CNG vehicles and its own fueling station. CNG prices are lower and more stable than gasoline prices, so companies that use CNG can save a lot of money over the course of a vehicle's life. In addition, the cars tend to run cleaner using CNG as well.

Jeff Morgan, Snapping Shoals fleet services director, said his company saved around $280,000 between 1999 and 2007, based on his calculations. With gas prices consistently pushing past $3, and sometimes $4, a gallon, the savings are only increasing. The equivalent price for a gallon of CNG is about $1.36 a gallon.

"This has so much less pollutants in it than gasoline, yet we're having such a hard time getting folks to adopt it. If we can get every EMC in the state to do what Snapping Shoals has done since the late 90s, this fuel would be (more prevalent)," Echols said Thursday while filling up his car at Snapping Shoals.

The difficulty, he said, is that CNG stations are much more expensive up front, around $600,000 compared to $30,000 for a traditional ethanol pump.

One of the other major users is MARTA, which has 350 CNG-powered buses, Echols said. He's trying to promote governments, taxi drivers and even limousine drivers - any commercial entities with large fleets - to make the switch. Limousine drivers in particular are hesitant because they lose a lot of trunk space to the gas tank.

"I was below ‘E' pulling into here. This is such a stressful way to commute around the state," Echols said, noting that his home town of Athens doesn't have a fueling station. So far, he's never had to be towed.

Snapping Shoals is considering expanding its fleet even further, while the city of Covington has previously pursued grants for a fueling station of its own. The alternative fuel is more attractive to entities like cities, which have smaller, defined travel areas.

Larger counties, with huge service radii, could have more trouble making the conversion, though gasoline-CNG hybrids are available and effective, Morgan said.