With gasoline prices are near 10-year highs, and concern about world oil supplies is growing, the number of alternative-fuel vehicles on metro Atlanta streets is going in reverse, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) remains committed to compressed natural-gas buses — 74 percent of its fleet is CNG — but several local companies have cut or abandoned alternative-fuel service fleets. Even Atlanta Gas Light, once an aggressive advocate for natural gas vehicles, has cut its natural gas fleet from more than 600 vehicles to nine.Metro Atlanta now has 1,847 alternative-fuel vehicles, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Last year, local operators retired 2,314 alt-fuel vehicles and added only 643. The agency predicts a net loss of at least an additional 200 vehicles in 2004.The rise and fall of alt-fuel fleets in Atlanta has been more dramatic than elsewhere, but some industry experts say it reflects languishing interest nationwide. One factor in Georgia was natural gas deregulation, which reshaped the way natural gas is marketed and sold and halted the growth of refueling stations.Demand for hybrids has risen with gas prices this year, but they aren't considered alt-fuel vehicles because they still rely on gas. Alternative fuels include propane, ethanol, electricity or natural gas. Many local companies report that alt-fuel refueling stations are infrequent and inconvenient, which reduces fleet efficiency and sends operating costs skyward.The U.S. Department of Energy decided to capitalize on the coming Olympics to make the city an international showcase for progressive transportation. The agency made Atlanta the first member of its Clean Cities program, created to boost alternative-fuel use.MARTA took advantage of federal matching funds to switch to natural gas buses, said Brooks McAllister, MARTA's director of bus maintenance. Rick Hewatt, the president of Atlanta's Checker Cab said that in 1995, Clean Cities and Atlanta Gas Light asked him to scrap his propane-fueled taxi fleet in favor of natural gas. The offer was attractive enough that he made the switch. The fleet ran smoothly at first, Hewatt said, but after the Olympics left, many stations stopped offering natural gas. "There were 10 Amoco stations that offered fuel," he said. "When the Olympics left, so did they. Infrastructure was a big problem."Hewatt's natural gas fleet, which peaked at 71 vehicles, survived the initial infrastructure fallout, but it was soon hit again. In 1999, deregulation moved Atlanta Gas Light out of the marketing and service business and into the role of a wholesale provider.The company scrapped its vehicle marketing program because it no longer made financial sense, said Nick Gold, spokesman for parent company AGL Resources. It also slashed its own natural gas fleet. Atlanta Gas Light stands to benefit from increased demand generated by fleet and passenger vehicles, but under deregulation, it can't run fueling stations.Checker Cab, which once claimed the nation's largest natural-gas taxi fleet, now has three left. The fleet now relies on unleaded gasoline. Atlanta-based BellSouth put the brakes on its natural gas vehicle program in 2002. The 50-van fleet had been operating since 1995, but fueling stations were too infrequent and the vans' operating range too limited for the fleet to remain practical, said BellSouth spokesman Kevin Curtin.UPS, headquartered in Sandy Springs, operates 1,024 natural gas trucks nationwide, said Robert Hall, the delivery company's fleet environmental manager. All UPS vehicles operating primarily in downtown Atlanta are powered by natural gas, he said.UPS sees its fleet as a long-term cost-saver, Hall said, but the savings is not yet substantial and the company is not expanding its program at this time.In Atlanta, Georgia Power has 125 vehicles that run on E-85, a fuel made of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent petroleum-based fuel. Fleets in Atlanta also increasingly are using biodiesel, which mixes diesel fuel with fuel derived from agricultural waste. Biodiesel typically reduces a vehicle's petroleum consumption by about 20 percent to 80 percent.