New PSC official becomes alternative fuel commuter

ATLANTA - Like any new car owner, Tim Echols is eager to show it off, but the freshman Public Service Commissioner gave his demonstration at the Capitol to illustrate the viability of alternative fuel.

After his election in November, Echols snagged a used Honda Civic for $3,000 that runs on compressed natural gas. He commutes between his Athens home and his Atlanta office in it, but he can only fill up in Atlanta because there are no fueling stations in Athens.

"The people in Athens would love this," he said. "It's a pretty green town."

Echols showed off the four-door to reporters and lobbyists and has offered rides to his colleagues. He says it performs like any other Honda, gets 36 miles per gallon, goes 190 miles on a tank and only costs $1.29 per gallon to fill it. Plus, the law lets alternative-fuel vehicles travel in the carpool lanes even with only one person aboard.

"The great thing is it's an American resource that I'm using," he said, noting that the United States generates ample natural gas without having to import.

Echols wants to see more people driving natural-gas vehicles, like the fleets of UPS and Atlanta city buses, because their emissions are 29 percent cleaner than gasoline motors, let alone diesel engines.

The hitch, he recognizes, is that few consumers will take the plunge until there are more places to buy fuel.

That's why he supports a proposal to allocate a portion of the state's Universal Service Fund for gas pipeline expansion to Atlanta Gas Light Co. for the construction of a statewide network of fueling stations.

Because stations can cost $625,000 each, private companies aren't eager to build them. The PSC proposal would only commit the funds if a fleet agrees to purchase at least 20 percent of a station's output.

"Atlanta Gas Light has been working with potential fleet customers, car makers and industry experts for years to determine the viability of building a commercial CNG infrastructure in Georgia," company spokeswoman Tami Gerke said. "We believe the time is right to begin the process, and our plan will not increase rates to our current customers."

Besides, she adds, building and operating refueling stations will provide jobs.

The gas pipeline company has fueling stations now for large fleets but has never operated one open to the public. Echols wants the company to partner with firms experienced in retail sales.

In the meantime, Echols says he's on a mission of sorts, which makes sense because he now regulates the natural-gas company.

"I am not the environmental poster boy," he said, "but we need to clean the air."

walter.jones@morris.com, (404) 589-8424

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