Alternative energy cars arrive in Tallahassee

Jan 30, 2012

While a Florida Senate Committee was considering alternative fuels for the state’s power plants Monday, an alternative energy car was attracting attention just a few miles from the Capitol.  Tom Flanigan reports the car is part of a growing movement to power motor vehicles with natural gas instead of gasoline.

At first glance, it looks like any other late model Honda Civic…except perhaps for its somewhat gaudy paint job.  Under the hood, what looks like a standard four-cylinder motor.  But this motor has been specially modified to allow this Honda to run on compressed natural gas.  So far, at least in this country, electric powered vehicles have been getting most of the attention in the non-petroleum power sweepstakes.   Kirby Kemper, the head of research at Florida State University, says electric cars are okay for certain kinds of travel:

“For me, I could have an electric car.  I live four miles from campus and the fact it takes seven hours to charge would be fine.  But I have to send people to the Marine Lab, which is 50-miles down, 50-miles back.  And they can’t run out of fuel halfway there.  So for that particular thing, this is a better option.”

Electric cars have been advertised as one way for America to become independent of foreign fuel suppliers.  Kemper isn’t sure that’s a viable selling point.

“Most of the lithium that we use in lithium batteries comes from Brazil.  What if Brazil says, ‘We’re not giving you lithium.’  So you’ve got to think like that.”

This is not the first time that fleet operators like Florida State University has given natural gas-powered vehicles a whirl.  Something similar happened in the wake of the worldwide oil crisis in the late 1970s.  That fling didn’t last long.  But Kemper thinks things are very different now.

“Remember, four years ago compressed natural gas was four times higher than what it is today.  But I think that the main difference is, as oil companies are getting squeezed, they have developed many more regions of natural gas.  And we’ve suddenly realized that we’ve got a huge amount of natural gas, both in Canada and the United States, and that this is an available fuel.”

About the only place natural gas isn’t immediately available is at the local filling station.  But even that’s beginning to change.  Leon County School Superintendent Jackie Pons says his district is rushing to make the switch to natural gas powered school buses..

“In Leon County we started with 11 buses.  Now we just went out and purchased 44 more.  We’ve got a fast-fill fuel station already open on the eastside.”

Pons says a second gas filling station is being built on the westside of town and both will be open to everyone…
“So now the entire community will be able to use CNG – compressed natural gas – as their primary fueling source and they’ll be able to buy new vehicles and fuel them at either location and this is going to be great for our community.”

And what happens when these vehicles take off for other parts of the state?  George Herrera is with NoPetro, the company building Leon County’s natural gas filling stations.  He envisions similar fueling stops statewide…

“I see twelve facilities over the next four years on major interstate corridors in collaboration with different private fleets and government entities throughout the state of Florida, being really able to develop this network out so that all commuters and all transporters and all operators can capitalize on the inherent fuel savings." 

They’re dramatic!  Economically, saving $1.50 a gallon…environmentally, it’s going to happen.  We’re going to be at the forefront in developing this network. It’s going to be exciting.”

But there are those who are more cautious than excited.  One of them is Honda’s Barbara Brentano.

“My running joke is, I keep ordering a crystal ball and it doesn’t show up.  FedEx hasn’t brought it; UPS hasn’t brought it; the mail hasn’t brought it.  I wish I had a crystal ball to say, ‘Hey, yeah, next year by this time, or two years from now or five years from now.”

Meaning, a time when natural gas powered vehicles may actually be widespread on U-S highways.  But with more public and private sector fleets now moving in, or at least considering that direction, that time may not be too far off.