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City starts its fleet of CNG vehicles
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Covington has begun the long-term process of building a fleet of compressed natural gas-powered vehicles.

Five new Dodge Ram bi-fuel pickup trucks were delivered to City Hall Thursday morning, bringing the city’s CNG-vehicle total to six.

Covington is currently building a CNG fueling facility on City Pond Road near its intersection with Alcovy Road, and plans to convert a significant portion of its fleet over to CNG over the next several years to reap the benefits of lower fuel costs.

Cutting fuel costs

The retail cost of CNG in the Metro Atlanta market is around $2.10–$2.29 per gasoline gallon equivalent, said grant writer Randy Conner, but the city sells its own natural gas, so its costs will be much lower.

For comparison, Conner previously said Snapping Shoals EMC, an area electricity provider, pays around $1.64 per gallon equivalent for the natural gas it buys in bulk for the fueling station at its Brown Bridge Road facility. As a wholesaler, Covington will pay even less than that.

Utility customers and corporate city customers will receive a discount on the retail price, Conner said.

The five trucks cost $35,250 apiece, discounted from the approximately $53,400 suggested retail price because they came from a sale that fell through for another city. CNG trucks cost a premium, but even at their retail price, they normally recover that premium through fuel savings after 60,000 miles, Conner said. Since the city bought discounted trucks and has cheaper-than-retail fuel, its premium cost recovery will be significantly quicker, Conner said.

 Who’s interested?

Despite the benefits of CNG, vehicles that run on GNG are generally good fits only for companies and organizations with large fleets, because they require such a large upfront investment.

Ginn Motor Co. owner Billy Fortson said the lack of a CNG fueling network has also delayed growth locally, but he is hopeful that sales will pick up after Covington’s CNG fueling station is built. He said he’s only seen a little interest in CNG vehicles to date, but he expects companies and organizations with larger vehicle fleets to start investing in the technology moving forward.

Vehicles don’t have to be manufactured as CNG vehicles; regular gasoline engines can be converted to CNG. In fact, this is the only option for larger vehicles, such as school buses and garbage trucks, two high-mileage vehicles that use a lot of fuel over their lifetimes. Fortson said he’s considering purchasing CNG-conversion kits and training employees to perform the conversions. There are some additional costs with the conversions, as the federal Environmental Protection Agency requires conversion kits to be certified.

Not all vehicles are good candidates for conversion, because CNG burns hotter than gasoline, Conner said, and can overheat some engines.

However, CNG also burns cleaner and can reduce maintenance costs.

Conner said both the county and school system have expressed interest in purchasing CNG vehicles and using the city’s fueling station. Conner said the city, county and school system’s vehicles use 1.4 million gallons of fuel annually.

"(With) as much fuel as we (all) use, it’s a no-brainer," Conner said.

Conner said the school system has more than 200 buses, and if it converted half of those buses to run on CNG it would save $8.2 million over 13 years — the approximate life of a school bus.

Conner said he spent time with officials at the Leon County School System — in Tallahassee, Fla., — who said they saved $6,500 on fuel per bus per year.

He said CNG tanks have to be inspected and certified every three years and the tank walls are very thick. Even if a tank is punctured, he said,  the gas will simply leak straight up.

Covington’s five trucks will be split among city departments, with two going to the police, one to engineering, one to the water department and one to the electric utility department. While people may ask why the police department needs two trucks, Conner said the police department often has to borrow trucks from other city departments.

He said the trucks are used to transport road barriers for events and collect evidence from crime scenes.

Construction on the CNG fueling facility is ahead of schedule, and Conner expects it to be open early next year.