Trussville Converting Police Vehicles to Run on Compressed Natural Gas

Trussville is converting police vehicles to use compressed natural gas, and the city's utilities board is putting more than $1 million into a public-private partnership to sell the alternative fuel at a gas station.

Mayor Gene Melton says the moves come after several years of studying CNG to see if it makes sense for the city. He said the use of CNG is common in some western states. The Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority runs buses on CNG.

The mayor said the city can save money while using a domestically produced fuel that is better for the environment because it results in lower levels of emissions.

The city began by converting four police cars for CNG use. Trussville is now converting 34 Chevrolet Tahoes to use CNG. Thirty-two of those will be used by the police department, two by the fire department. Some are in use and Melton expects the others to be ready by the end of December. The vehicles will be bi-fuel, meaning they can still run on gasoline.

Melton expects to have all city departments use the alternative fuel.

The Trussville Utilities Board is providing a loan of $1.08 million to McCullough Oil Company to set up a facility to sell CNG at a Chevron station on Deerfoot Parkway near the Interstate 59 exit.

Melton expects the filling station to be open in mid-December.

The utilities board will receive a share of CNG sales at the Chevron station until the money is repaid, the mayor said.

"The end game is to get our investment back over time," Melton said.

Mike Strength, chief financial officer of Trussville Utilities, said he expects the loan to be paid off in about eight years.

The city will fuel its vehicles there. At today's prices, Melton estimates the city would be saving about 50 percent on the fuel cost.

According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center on the U.S. Department of Energy website, there are four CNG stations with public access in Alabama. One is the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority on Eighth Avenue North. The others are Alagasco operations centers in Tuscaloosa and Pell City and a Chevron station in Evergreen.

The DOE website showed that the average retail price for CNG as of Oct. 12 was $2.12 per GGE, or gasoline-gallon equivalent, a quantity of fuel with the same amount of energy as a gallon of gasoline.

Strength said he expected the price at the Trussville station to be about $1.98 per GGE. He said the price should be relatively stable and not fluctuate as much as the price of gasoline.

According to the DOE, the advantages of natural gas are that it produces lower levels of emissions and is cheaper than gasoline. A disadvantage is the limited availability of the fuel.

Power, acceleration and cruise speed are roughly equivalent to conventional vehicles, according to the DOE. The vehicles go fewer miles on a tank of fuel because natural gas has a lower energy density than gasoline.

There about 112,000 natural gas powered vehicles in the United States, according to the Department of Energy. There is limited but growing availability of light-duty vehicles made originally for CNG use. Conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles can be retrofitted for CNG.

Melton said conversion to CNG can mean significant savings over time for Trussville, especially if the cost of gasoline rises.

Trussville Police Chief Don Sivley said the savings should eventually offset the cost of converting the Tahoes for CNG use. He said the conversion costs about $10,000 per vehicle.

"We're estimating that in five to seven years, it will more than pay for the cost of conversion," Sivley said. "If gas goes up to $4 a gallon, it's going to make the payoff a lot quicker."

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