By Ray Henry, Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) - The Georgia Public Service Commission voted 4-1 on Tuesday to allow Atlanta Gas Light to spend $11.5 million collected from its industrial customers to finance the construction of new compressed natural gas pumps for vehicles around the state.
Atlanta Gas Light executives said the program is necessary to seed a market for compressed natural gas vehicles by removing a barrier to driving them: a lack of publicly accessible gas stations. Of the roughly 20 stations that sell compressed natural gas, most are owned by private companies or governments and closed to the general public.
Companies that already sell the gas opposed the idea, arguing that allowing a regulated utility to spend its customers' money to finance the program would discourage private investors from building their own pumps. By law, the state's elected utility commissioners could have used those same funds to expand natural gas pipelines, give emergency energy assistance to the poor or provide rebates to the utility's commercial and residential customers.
Commissioners rejected a staff recommendation that they encourage regulators to adopt a scaled-back proposal focusing on funding the construction of compressed natural gas pumps for operators of large fleets of natural gas vehicles. The commission ditched an earlier proposal that would have required participating business owners to share some of the financial risk by paying for at least half the cost of the pumps.
"We believe the improvements made to the plan by the commissioners are good for the consumer and will spur competition between private investors, creating a successful growth market in CNG fueling stations in Georgia," said Tami Gerke, a spokeswoman for the parent company of Atlanta Gas Light, in a written statement.
Under the program, Atlanta Gas Light will pay for all or part of the pumping equipment at around a dozen stations, although the exact number will depend on the cost of the proposals from interested partners. Some of the money collected at those stations would be used to install additional pumps at more stations.
Money raised at the stations would also subsidize the leasing of pumps to residential customers who want to fill natural gas vehicles at home. The utility aims to rent the necessary pumps to residents for around $50 to $60 per month. The pumps work slowly, filling a car in a matter of hours compared to just minutes at a commercial station.