EBR converting vehicles to natural gas

06 11, 2012 by The Advocate

East Baton Rouge is attempting to go green, and it’s starting with its vehicles.

Department of Public Works Director William Daniel said the city-parish is beginning the process of transforming its vehicles into a fleet that’s run by compressed natural gas.

Natural gas is a less expensive alternative fuel source to diesel and gasoline, and its harmful emissions are lower, Daniel said.

“We can save money (on fuel costs) and serve the people of the parish more efficiently by doing this,” Daniel said, noting that the switch is part of Mayor-President Kip Holden’s sustainability plan for city-parish government.

The city-parish selected a consultant, Professional Engineers Consultants Corp., to oversee the transformation, Daniel said. The contract is still in negotiations and will go before the council for approval within the next few weeks.

Next, the city-parish will seek requests for proposals from contractors. Costs, funding strategies, the time line and scope will be determined by the contractor who lands the bid, Daniel said.

There are hundreds of vehicles operated by the city-parish, but the contractor will ultimately recommend how many vehicles and what departments should be converted to CNG, Daniel said.

David Guillory, assistant DPW director, said his agency will be particularly interested in replacing its maintenance and operations vehicles, which include heavy dump trucks, tractors and large pickup trucks.

“We do have a lot of passenger vehicles, but it’s the heavy-duty pickups that we’d really like to save on fuel and burn cleaner fuel sources,” Guillory said.

The initial investment to convert to CNG is expensive because it requires new vehicles and fueling stations.

Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said it costs about $10,000 to convert a vehicle to CNG, and fueling stations are between $1 million and $2 million to build.

Daniel said he expects there will be federal and state funds available to assist with financing. Also, he said, the city-parish could make an arrangement with the contractor to finance the project through the city-parish’s expected fuel cost savings over several years.

Briggs said CNG costs about $1.79 per “gasoline gallon equivalent,” and can run as cheap as 50 cents a gallon equivalent if an entity is using its own fueling station.

Baton Rouge follows in the footsteps of Lafayette and Shreveport, which already have some city buses that run on CNG.

Baton Rouge’s bus system, the Capital Area Transit System, is quasi-independent from the city-parish and has opted to pursue hybrid-electric buses rather than CNG partly because of the initial investment.

Lafayette also has about 41 other “nonbus” vehicles, Briggs said, ranging from police to public works vehicles, that use CNG.

But Briggs cautioned that it does not always make financial sense to convert.

“It depends on the source of the funding, and it depends on the mileage that a vehicle travels in any given year and how much fuel they consume,” he said. “If you’re using local or state tax dollars it may not make much economic sense because of the conversion costs.”

Briggs said converting makes sense for the “heaviest users of fuel,” which includes buses, street sweepers, garbage trucks and vehicles that travel more than 12,000 miles per year.

But, he added, “if the money comes from a grant, and you get the conversion costs for free, then anything makes sense because you’ll save on fuel regardless.”

Briggs said there should be plenty of federal funding opportunities for the city-parish, noting that when federal stimulus money was made available to the state in recent years, there were not enough applicants to spend the money.

Baton Rouge has a few CNG stations already, Briggs said — including at least three that are run by Entergy.

The city-parish also has a CNG station that was funded by a grant more than five years ago, Guillory said.

The grant also paid for five Honda Civics that run on CNG and are used by DPW inspectors.

But, Briggs said, the technology has changed since that station was built, and CNG vehicles are now built differently.

He said those cars have smaller fuel tanks than new CNG vehicles, and the station fuels cars very slowly.

Daniel said he hopes the first phase of the conversion will begin by next year.