Now, when a driver pulls into the Crown Central gas station on West Street in Annapolis and asks for gas, he can get real gas. Not gasoline, but natural gas -- the fuel more commonly associated with stationary objects like stoves and furnaces.
Hoping to be a pilot light for an expanding natural-gas market for vehicles, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Crown Central Petroleum Corp. opened the state's first public natural-gas fueling facility yesterday.
On hand for the christening was Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who pumped some compressed gas into a Chevrolet Lumina minivan. Also at the event were Henry A. Rosenberg Jr., Crown's chairman; Michael J. Chesser, vice president of marketing for BG&E; Gary Thorpe, director of the Maryland Energy Administration; and Francis Flanigan, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay Inc.
Despite the fanfare surrounding the opening, business promises to be relatively thin at the new pump because there are only about 400 natural-gas-powered vehicles in the state, most of which belong to utility companies, according to Arthur J. Slusark, a spokesman for BG&E.;
But Crown and BG&E; say they are confident that this will change because of federal regulations under the Clean Air Act that force companies and government agencies to buy vehicles that use natural gas and other alternative fuels, which emit less pollution.
By 1998, businesses and all government agencies with vehicle fleets of 10 or more must buy 30 percent of their new vehicles equipped with alternative-fuel engines, including electric and natural gas. This figure will rise to 70 percent by 2000.
"It's not going to make money right away, but it's part of our energy future," said Joseph M. Coale, a spokesman for Baltimore-based Crown.
The lone natural-gas pump at the Annapolis station looks much like a regular fuel pump, except for the sign designating it as natural gas and the nozzle that can connect only with natural-gas vehicles.
BG&E;, which paid $100,000 to buy and install the pump, will provide the gas.
The natural gas is being sold in gallon equivalents, which are actually 120 cubic feet of natural gas. The price started at 92.9 cents a gallon and will fluctuate with the market.
Both BG&E; and Crown said they plan to install more natural-gas pumps in other parts of the state, including Baltimore.
For now, the natural-gas vehicles are in fleets owned by BG&E;, Washington Gas Light Co., state government, Giant Food Inc. and a few other companies. Most are owned by BG&E;, which has 200 service vans powered by natural gas.