By Lee Weyhrich
Trussville has already placed itself on the cutting-edge of the alternative fuel movement by converting more than 20 of its fleet vehicles to burn Compressed Natural Gas. Being on the cutting edge of an alternative fuel source, however, has its drawbacks. Until very recently, the vehicles had to be fueled at the Trussville Utilities Board.
According to Trussville Utilities CFO, Mike Strength , the demand overshadowed the supply. The Utilities board came up with an elegant solution that should handle their needs, as well as make it more convenient for the public to use this alternative fuel source. They helped develop a CNG fueling station at the Chevron station on Deerfoot Parkway.
“The Utilities Board made a loan to McCullough Oil (the owners of the Chevron Station) to help finance it,” Strength said. “We’ve worked on this specific station for over two years – most of that spent on planning and business models. The actual building took just a couple of months. “
Essentially, the city made a loan of over million to McCullough to develop the station. Trussville will receive a portion of all CNG sales to help repay the loan
. The city will also benefit from the much lower fuel costs in the long-term. CNG is currently roughly half the cost of regular unleaded per gallon equivalent, and vehicle mileage is very similar between the two fuels.
The Chevron station was chosen for its convenient location to the interstate. The Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority runs the only other publicly accessible CNG station in this area and it is located at the edge of a parking lot.
“We wanted to try a different model of making it a truly modern station,” Strength said. “They were able to place the pump under the awning along with the other pumps. A lot of stations don’t have room on the island for alternative fuels. “
To date, the city has purchased or converted 32 police vehicles, two fire vehicles, a dump truck and a Honda Civic. Strength expects the total number of city vehicles burning CNG to reach 40 within the next month. The conversion costs roughly ,000 per vehicle, but other considerations offset the cost. Not the least of which is breaking from a dependence on foreign oil.
Trussville Mayor Eugene Melton and Strength both believe a domestic fuel source will be less financially insecure than a foreign one. The state of Alabama has two sources of natural gas, Fort Morgan and the coal fields near Tuscaloosa. Melton said the CNG cars do not require as much regular maintenance as traditional fuel burning cars.
“It’s a clean fuel; the engine oil that comes out is as clean as the oil that went in,” Melton said. “We can go up to 15,000 miles between oil changes. The vehicles also have an estimated three additional years of life over traditional cars do to the cleanliness of this fuel.”
The cars produce none of the odor one would typically expect from a vehicle and the engines do not build up the deposits associated with ethanol, which shorten the lives of traditional vehicles. Mechanics at Courtesy Pontiac are being trained to work on the vehicles.
The new fuel system also offers advantages in safety over other systems. The gas is pressurized to 3600 pounds per square inch (PSI). In the event of a fuel tank breach, the lighter-than-air CNG simply dissipates rather than igniting.
In the process of filling a tank using traditional gasoline there is also a sizeable percentage of gas that escapes as vapor, some spillage will also occur. No vapor escapes in the filling process of a CNG vehicle. The pump connects much like a larger version of a tire pump and is air-tight. The pump also constantly monitors the amount of fuel entering the vehicle and adjusts pressure accordingly.
According to Strength, the compression tanks that hold the CNG can fill 10 large city vehicles before running out of fuel. The pumps then shut off for around eight minutes until they are automatically and completely refilled.
The CNG pump will officially open to the public January 16 at 1 p.m. with a ribbon cutting ceremony. The ceremony will be attended by several auto dealerships, who will be bringing examples of their own CNG cars.