Natural gas tried in more Md. vehicles as a fuel that could ease air pollution


Gov. William Donald Schaefer has one parked in his driveway. So does his transportation secretary.

The chairman of the state public service commission drives one exclusively when he's on the job. Soon, dozens of state employees will be given them, and transit riders will get their chance to ride, too.

They are cars, vans, trucks and buses powered by natural gas.

The concept isn't new, nor is most of the technology. But concern over air pollution has heightened interest in natural gas powered vehicles, which are generally cleaner running than are their gasoline- or diesel-fired counterparts.

"It's the alternate fuel right now," said Gerald L. Thorpe, director of the Maryland Energy Administration. "The infrastructure is getting put in place. The conversion is inexpensive and straightforward."

State officials have embarked on what they call a "controlled experiment" to determine the feasibility of natural gas vehicles. Six of them have been in use by employees of the state Department of the Environment for the past year.

A $100,000 federal grant will permit the state transportation department to convert 25 vehicles, ranging from Dodge vans to Chevrolet sedans, to run on natural gas. The cars, vans and light trucks will be used by state employees.

Another $82,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy will pay for three or four school buses to run on natural gas. Plans call for them to be deployed in Baltimore County, Montgomery County and one other subdivision yet to be determined.

Even more ambitious is a $3 million program by the Mass Transit Administration. The state agency is planning to acquire four buses powered by liquefied natural gas that will be mixed in with its Baltimore fleet by early next year.

At the heart of these efforts are two utilities, Washington Gas and Baltimore Gas and Electric, the major suppliers of natural gas in Maryland. They'd like to pitch their product as an alternate vehicle fuel, and see the state program as a good opportunity to demonstrate its benefits.

The Baltimore-Washington area has some of the nation's most severe air pollution, and the federal Clean Air Act includes a provision calling on owners of local vehicle fleets -- companies or government agencies that own 10 or more cars and trucks -- to start buying cleaner running vehicles beginning with the 1998 model year.

That includes state government and its inventory of 10,000 vehicles. Enter the utility companies, which have offered the state technical and financial assistance -- including $200,000 from BG&E; for the MTA bus project -- to try natural gas.

"It's not necessarily that we think natural gas is a better fuel, but we have strong industry support," said Richard L. Sheckells, manager of environmental resources for the state transportation department. "They've been very good at helping us solve problems."

But the fuel is not without its problems. Tests of the half-dozen cars at the Department of Environment have not produced the touted environmental benefits, and there are limits to the vehicle range and refueling capability.

Experts point out that there is actually little difference between a gasoline powered car and one fueled by natural gas. They can use the same engines, and motorists are hard-pressed to tell them apart in driving performance.

Cars converted from gasoline to natural gas -- conversion "kits" cost $2,500 to $3,500 -- often retain the ability to use both fuels: A switch on the --board allows them to change from one to the other.

The real challenge is fuel storage. Compressed natural gas takes up a considerable amount of room and requires tanks capable of handling high pressure. Liquefied natural gas takes up far less room but is trickier to handle, requiring space-age storage tanks that act as giant thermoses to maintain the liquid's minus-260 degree Fahrenheit temperature.

The effect is to limit range. Some of BG&E;'s own natural gas vehicles can go only 150 miles between refills. Add an extra tank -- and sacrifice on-board storage -- and officials claim they can get 250 miles.

Refueling is a problem because of a lack of infrastructure. BG&E; operates only two refueling stations: one at Woodlawn and one at Baltimore-Washington International Airport that Governor Schaefer is scheduled to dedicate this morning. A third in Timonium is set to go on line next week, a fourth and fifth in Glen Burnie and South Baltimore before year's end.

But you can forget trips to Western Maryland or the Eastern Shore; there aren't any refueling sites that far away from the city. Don't plan to take the harbor tunnels either. Bottled gas is prohibited there as a hazardous substance.

BG&E; officials agree that they have a real problem with the chicken-and-egg dilemma of refueling. There is a lack of refueling stations because there is a lack of vehicles, and vice versa.

The company is negotiating with several petroleum companies to open a natural gas fuel facility at a commercial gas station that would be open to the general public. A deal could be announced in the fall, according to a BG&E; spokesman.

Perhaps the best selling point is the cost and availability of natural gas. Right now, it's running about 30 percent cheaper than the equivalent amount of gasoline, and it's produced domestically. Still, the state wants to explore other alternate fuel options, including alcohol/gasoline blends, propane and electricity. The answer may even be in a cleaner burning gasoline engine.

"If I owned a fleet of vehicles, I would wait," said Daniel J. Meszler, the state Department of the Environment's motor vehicle emissions expert. "Ultimately, most people will purchase the vehicles Detroit makes available to them, and I think most will be gasoline powered."

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