Group wants a switch to compressed natural gas to help clean up Tampa Bay air

08/14/12 Janelle Irwin
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A trio of public and private groups in the Tampa Bay area is joining forces to reduce dependence on petroleum. The University of South Florida, the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County and TECO Energy committed funding to the Clean Cities Coalition this morning at USF’s Patel Center for Global Sustainability. USF president Judy Genshaft said transportation accounts for more than 71% of the nation’s petroleum consumption.

“Vehicles are major sources of greenhouse gasses, smog-forming compounds and other pollutants. Widespread use of alternative fuels and advanced vehicles will greatly reduce the emissions that impact our air quality and our health.”

The group wants to start using compressed natural gas instead of gasoline or diesel in some vehicles. Stephen Reich, coordinator of the Clean Cities Coalition said this isn’t the first time localities have tried to do that.

“Car manufacturers back in the '80s wouldn’t move toward CNG because there wasn’t infrastructure. The infrastructure providers wouldn’t move because there weren’t the vehicle fleets to support the market. The key to this is in simultaneous deployment of both and doing it in a way that no one gets out in front of the other.”

Philanthropist Frank Morsani who is pushing the effort has modified vehicles to be able to use both gasoline and compressed natural gas.

“We were converting these trucks for Continental Oil Company and that was in 1955, that’s a few years ago. Fast forward, we’re doing exactly the same thing that we were doing in 1955. The only difference is today the technology we have to deal with this issue is so much – you can’t compare. There’s just no comparison with what we saw at that time.”

Clean Cities Coalition’s Reich said the group will work with officials, members of the community and researchers from USF to tap into the new technology available.

“We’ll be forming at least three committees to work on very specific items all pushing towards what’s called the development of a program plan. We’ll be inventorying and trying to assess the current market in the region for alternative fuels. Our region will cover from Sarasota County up to Pasco, over to Polk. So, it’ll be a six county area initially.”

Kalinthy Vairavamoorthy is the director of USF’s Patel School of Global Sustainability. He said the school will become a college within the university – like the college of engineering for example – and the research capabilities they will offer the coalition could help stir conversations about how to tame the area’s oil dependency.

“We will have a wider and stronger expertise coupled with strong interdisciplinary focus around urban resource management both in developed and developing countries.”

Tampa International Airport has already opened a compressed natural gas fueling station and started using some retrofitted shuttles. The coalition could look at that as a model for large fleets like Hillsborough County School buses. The swap from petroleum to natural gas would save a significant amount of money over time. But Richard Garrity, executive director for the Hillsborough Environmental Commission said it’s more about cutting back on air pollutants.

“Air pollution can trigger a number of breathing conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The Florida Department of Health, in fact, has reported that over 20% of middle and high school students have reported asthma conditions.”

But reducing pollutants isn’t all about swapping one fuel for another. Stephen Reich, coordinator for the Clean Cities Coalition, said it’s also important to look at alternative transportation like biking, transit and ride sharing, but retrofitting cars turns more heads.

“It’s not just, kind of, the whiz-bang hardware, but that sort of captures peoples’ attentions. So, I think that’s where the emphasis is, but I think all those things need to contribute.”

Overhauling a region’s transit system takes time, money and support from a community. But there are a lot of people who don’t want to spend tax dollars to improve mass transit. Reich disagrees with critics who think getting a few people out of their cars and onto a bike doesn’t make enough of a difference.

“But when you think about only 11% of our current imports for petroleum in the U.S. come from the Middle East, that kind of puts it in perspective. We could get 11% - we should be able to get 11% with our eyes closed just through conservations, increased fuel efficiency.”

Voters have ideological differences in how to tackle energy issues. But Republican Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said this coalition doesn’t have to succumb to that.

“You know, we have our political differences at times. You can see it played out in the news, but Republicans and Democrats and independents and others can work together to solve this problem and we’re going to do that at the local level.”

A similar effort in the mid-nineties called the Suncoast Clean Cities Coalition died for lack of funding early the next decade. This time though, the coalition will meet a series of benchmarks to earn designation in a federal network of Clean City groups. That will give Tampa Bay the opportunity to compete for grants. More information is on the Patel Center’s website.


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