The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

February 25, 2013

Athens on cutting edge of green technology

By Jonathan Deal

— That construction you see adjacent to the Athens Sportsplex along U.S. 31 isn’t just another gasoline station. While it will in fact be a filling station, it’s not the type of gas most Americans typically use.

This particular filling station will be for vehicles that operate on CNG — Compressed Natural Gas. The CNG filling station will be part of the Interstate 65 CNG corridor and will be the only CNG filling station between Birmingham and Nashville.

“It will be open to the public,” said Steve Carter, manager of the Athens Gas Department. “We’ve already had several people come by to ask when it will be open.”

Although not as publicized as electric cars and hybrids on the market, CNG vehicles are comparable in price and some say they contain many features better than their gasoline-based or alternative fuel cousins.

According to the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition, power, acceleration, fuel economy and cruise speed on CNG vehicles are comparable with gasoline or diesel engines. As a gaseous fuel, natural gas has superior cold-weather starting and driving characteristics.  Natural gas also has an octane rating of 130, which is higher than most premium gasoline.

“The electric cars have gotten a lot of publicity lately — and the government gives discounts for those. You don’t see those (discounts) on the CNG. It is transitioning slowly, but with gasoline spiking, I expect it to pick up.”

The average price of gasoline in the United State in January was $3.57 per gallon, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Compare that with an average price of compressed natural gas at approximately $1.65 per gallon and it is possible the transition could come sooner rather than later.

Locally, the city of Athens is already taking advantage of the CNG vehicle’s benefits. Over the past several years, the City Council has opted to pursue a CNG program to combat fuel costs and decrease dependency on foreign fuel.

“We can complain about fuel prices and try to find ways to limit vehicle usage, which could lead to cuts in services to our citizens, or we can be proactive,” Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks said in a statement in May 2012. “We have decided to be proactive and be green.”

The city currently owns two vehicles that run on compressed natural gas — a Honda Civic and a Dodge Ram pickup truck. The Civic reportedly gets 42 mpg while the truck is a hybrid that contains an 8-gallon fuel capacity. The next CNG the city will add is a garbage truck.

“The garbage truck is completely CNG,” said Carter. “A lot of county, city schools use CNG buses because of the savings. Birmingham uses a lot of CNG buses. I think there will be a lot more of them in the future. Especially fleets — they are good for that. FedEx uses a lot of CNG vehicles. They are especially big out West.”

In addition to the new garbage truck, which is expected to arrive in the next two weeks, Carter said the gas department plans on donating two Chevrolet Tahoe CNG vehicles to the Athens Police Department that will run on compressed natural gas.

Fast-fill station

Coinciding with the increase in CNG vehicles will be the new fast-fill compressed natural gas station in Athens. The station is being constructed on city-owned property near the Sportsplex.

Currently, the city owns a slow-fill station at Leak City on Sanderfer Road. Leak City is a training facility operated by the Gas Department. The difference between a fast-fill and slow-fill CNG station is night and day, literally.

The fast-fill station will fill up a vehicle in about five to 10 minutes, according to Carter. The slow-fill station fills up a vehicle at about a gallon per hour and vehicles are normally left overnight at such stations.

The station will look very similar to a traditional gas station, except it won’t have an attached convenience store or restrooms. City employees will have a card to swipe when refueling a city vehicle while the public will be able to use a traditional credit/debit card.

It will contain a two-sided pump, with one hose being for big trucks and a second hose for cars. A 15-foot canopy will cover the pump, and the station will be well lit. While most traditional gas stations have belowground fuel storage, the CNG will be stored aboveground. The compressor, which compresses the fuel and stores it, will be 75 to 100 feet away from the pump.

The station was scheduled to be completed by January, but weather has stalled the project and the new completion date should be early spring, according to Carter.

“The weather has kind of been too bad to do underground stuff,” said Steve Carter, manager of the Athens Gas Department.  “They are probably 40 percent done with it. They’re still waiting on the compressor. We’re probably looking at a completion date around the middle of April.”

Center for Clean Energy Technology

Calhoun Community College is doing its part for clean energy. The college recently opened the Center for Clean Energy Technology that hosts Calhoun’s Renewable Energy associate degree program. The program currently offers renewable energy, green technology and continuing education courses.

“It’s a completely green building, but they also teach those programs in the building,” said Calhoun Community College spokeswoman Janet Kincherlow-Martin. “It has wells that go underneath the ground that recycles rainwater. It’s not for consumption, but for commodes. The building is “off the grid” and generates enough energy so it heats and cools itself.”

The college funded the building with a $3.4 million department of labor grant three years ago. It was officially opened during the fall semester with an open house and initially had about 70 students enrolled in the program.

“We offer credit classes and non-credit classes for people interested in going into the field of renewable energy and technology,” Kincherlow-Martin said. “It’s also for people interested in redoing their homes so they are more energy efficient. We have scholarships for people who have lost their jobs or who are in low paying. They can get training if they qualify for scholarships to keep the job they already have.”

The 11,000-square-foot building is located at the Limestone County campus.