Officials eyeing 'green' projects

ALBANY -- Local government officials are taking a more aggressive posture on using possible "green" -- or at least "greener" -- approaches to energy consumption, authorities say.

While the Dougherty County Commission has largely been the pioneer in developing alternative sources of energy -- namely efforts to collect and now pipe unused methane from the Dougherty County Landfill to Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany -- the city and the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission are busy thinking of ways to put energy sources other than fossil fuels to use.

For city officials, research is under way to determine whether there is an opportunity to deflate the Civic Center's monstrous utility bill by heating and cooling the facility through alternative energy sources.

Last month, Assistant City Manager Wes Smith said that the city was contemplating using solar panels to help mitigate utility costs. After further research, that option appears to not be a viable one, at least in terms of reaching the same savings benchmark the city had set.

"The savings would be there, just apparently not to the level we were hoping for," Smith said. "Frankly, no matter how many panels we put up there, we would save money, it's just a matter of cutting the bill in half or saving at least enough to pay for the cells over time."

The city is considering following MCLB's lead and using geothermal energy -- or energy pulled from underground heat -- to meet the energy requirements for the Civic Center.

"They've had success both in their new base housing and their old housing using geothermal energy and we're looking into it," Assistant City Manager James Taylor said. "It's a much more abundant source of energy than solar. The trick is getting it set up properly."

Taylor said there had been a few discussions with Marine Corps officials about their program to see whether a similar approach might work downtown.

Meanwhile, at WG&L, preliminary discussions are under way to examine the feasibility of building a compressed natural gas (CNG) station or pump for use in Albany.

Often viewed as a cleaner, cheaper alternative to petroleum-based fuels, WG&L Finance Director John Vansant said that while natural gas prices do fluctuate, current prices are hovering between 75 cents and $1.25 a gallon.

"We have had some talks about it," Vansant said. "Ideally, we could see offering it up to those who have fleet vehicles like school buses or garbage trucks as means to lower fuel costs."

The challenge is the cost of converting existing trucks, buses and other vehicles from diesel or gasoline to CNG, but an effort is currently under way on Capitol Hill to increase government tax breaks to help offset the expense.

Led by former oil executive T. Boone Pickens, the push for CNG is based largely on its abundance and the belief that if there a shift to CNG from petroleum products, it would reduce or eliminate the U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Speaking on "Larry King Live" on Thursday, Pickens said that the U.S. supply of natural gas -- roughly 4,000 trillion cubic feet -- is nearly three times that of Saudia Arabia's crude oil supply.

In Albany, city officials are re-examining a recent purchase of six new transit buses to see whether it would be cost effective to change the order from clean diesel to CNG.

The challenge there, WG&L officials say, is if a fleet switches to CNG, there obviously must be infrastructure in place to support a fuel supply.

"It's kind of a chicken-and-the-egg thing as far as what needs to come first," Vansant said. "Some say that you have to have a pump set up before people will invest in vehicles that use CNG, but then others say that to warrant the expense of building a station that there has to be demand from existing vehicles."

If the city were to switch from the clean diesel buses to the CNG buses, the cost per bus is expected to increase by $45,000, but CNG vehicles typically have a longer life span and require less maintenance.

The buses as currently ordered have been purchased using stimulus money, which would likely mean that any additional costs would have to come either through the city's general fund or their inclusion on a list of projects up for consideration on the upcoming special sales tax referendum.