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Covington, Newton talk natural gas
Government leaders attend seminar on alternative fuel

COVINGTON - Newton County and Covington officials joined representatives from 15 municipalities across the state to learn the benefits of using natural gas as an alternative fuel source during a seminar at DeKalb Tech on Tuesday.

At the seminar, natural gas vehicles were touted as a cost-saving, environmentally friendly alternative for government fleets.

Nearly 7 million natural gas vehicles are in use worldwide with about 100,000 operating on U.S. roads, according to Phoenix Energy, a Birmingham, Ala.-based leader in the alternative fuel industry.

The clean fuel, made of mostly methane and one carbon atom, is in abundance in the United States and Canada, and there is plenty of infrastructure available for distribution.

In addition, natural gas vehicles offer 20 to 29 percent less greenhouse gas emissions.

"Compressed natural gas is not the silver bullet, but it is the longest bridge we have to independent energy in America right now," said Steve Bouchillon, director of operations for Phoenix Energy.

The gas can be used in two forms: compressed or liquefied. Compressed natural gas is delivered by a utility pipeline and then compressed at stations and stored or distributed directly to vehicles.

Liquefied natural gas is cooled to minus-259 degrees at production plants and stored in liquid form, then shipped to users via tankers. This form is typically preferred by heavy-duty fleets.

In Birmingham, natural gas runs the city's bus service and there are private and public stations. The gas is currently selling for $1.36 per gallon, with stations open 24 hours a day, seven days a week with payment only accepted by credit card, Bouchillon said.

Covington has indicated an interest in using natural gas to power at least some of its vehicle fleet, and potentially in partnering with Newton County, the Board of Education and Water and Sewerage Authority on construction and/or use of a station. The county already has one station and operates bi-fuel vehicles.

The cost of the station and converting the city fleet to accept natural gas depends upon the number of vehicles that will be impacted and the cost to purchase the gas and electricity to run compressors. Each utility must determine those costs and come up with a resale value for the gas, Bouchillon said.

He recommended initially purchasing used natural gas-powered vehicles at lower cost to start a small pilot program.

"Take a spoonful at a time. If you like the taste, move on up," Bouchillon advised. "Don't try to eat the whole bowl at a time because you might not like it."

Cost savings also vary, depending on the amount of gas used by vehicle, but the city could save an estimated $60,000 to $70,000 or more over the lifespan of a typical utility work truck, according to estimates provided by Phoenix Energy.

Various IRS tax credits and incentives are available for governments with alternative fuel sources, including an income tax credit worth 50 percent of the incremental cost of the vehicles.

Credits range from $2,500 to $32,000 depending on vehicle weight. A 50-cent motor fuels excise tax credit is also available, along with grants from the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Covington Utility Director Bill Meecham said after the meeting that he and other city officials will continue to explore alternative fuel options, including natural gas.

City Manager Steve Horton previously told The Citizen that if a natural gas system is implemented and proves to be successful, a station could be opened for public use.

The seminar was hosted by the Municipal Gas Authority of Georgia after the Covington and other members asked for information on using natural gas as a fuel alternative.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.