The rush to make Jacksonville one of the leading players in the natural gas industry took another step Wednesday, when work began on a publicly accessible compressed-natural-gas station.
The groundbreaking ceremony at the Southside Industrial Park for Champion Brands beer distributor, which owns the property, and Trillium CNG promised plenty of fuel for Champion trucks when the station becomes operational in October.
But the broader implication for the $2 million facility is its access to any vehicles that are either converted or are completely new and ready to use CNG as their fuel source.
"It gives us a real option to get away from diesel fuel," said Earl Benton, CEO of Champion Brands. "It gives us a cleaner fuel, a fuel that is far cheaper than diesel fuel."
Benton is planning for 40 Freightliner tractor-trailer rigs to be outfitted to operate on CNG. Several are scheduled to arrive in Jacksonville in September to begin replacing the current diesel fleet. The replacement of the fleet should be complete within three years, he said.
Each rig costs about $135,000, much more than diesels, which cost about $85,000 each.
While the cost of each of the new vehicles is substantially more than the traditional diesel trucks, the cost of CNG per gallon is substantially lower, coming in at about $2.25 per gallon as opposed to diesel, which is approaching $4 per gallon.
Benton said he hopes that manufacturers of smaller vehicles in his fleet, such as vans and light trucks, offer CNG-fueled models soon. He'll switch out about 60 of those vehicles to natural gas, too.
Benton said his fleet conversion to CNG could lead the way for other companies to follow suit, especially once the CNG station is opened. It's the first public-access CNG station to offer service in Jacksonville.
Anddrikk Frazier, regional business development manager for Trillium, said the CNG station will look similar to a normal gasoline service station. Trillium will own, operate and maintain the station, which is minutes from U.S. 1, Interstate 95 and the Interstate 295 beltway that loops around the Jacksonville metropolitan area.
"The location of this station is ideal," Frazier said, adding that the Southside Industrial Park is heavily used by larger trucks with ready-made traffic for the facility.
"You're located in an area where the trucking market is extremely dense. So there's a lot of opportunity for trucks that are available to convert to natural gas to fuel at this station."
Frazier acknowledged that most trucks in the area have not been replaced by CNG vehicles yet. But the addition of the public-access station lays the infrastructure for a likely conversion in the trucking industry.
"This is a catalyst really to get things started in this area," Frazier said.
The promise of a new CNG station, possibly the first of several in the Jacksonville area, comes as local business leaders are seeking stronger connections to the industry through both CNG and liquid natural gas.
First Coast developments in natural gas have occurred rapidly in the past year:
-- Jacksonville-based Crowley shipping and its Carib Energy wing inked a deal to supply containerized natural gas to two of Coca-Cola's manufacturing plants in Cayey and Cidra, Puerto Rico.
-- Sea Star Line and Crowley, two major JaxPort tenants, ordered liquefied natural gas-powered cargo ships.
-- Jacksonville-based CSX is looking at LNG conversion. In November, the company said it would partner with GE Transportation on a test to outfit some diesel-powered locomotives to give them the capability to run on LNG.
-- Jacksonville Electric Authority and Tampa-based TECO Energy, both of whom own portions of Jacksonville's underground natural-gas pipeline network, plan to work together to improve capacity.
-- St. Johns County plans to convert its 130-vehicle fleet to natural gas.
-- The Jacksonville Transportation Authority is looking at constructing a compressed natural gas fueling station and plans to buy 100 natural gas-powered buses over a five-year period.
-- The North Florida Transportation Planning Organization expects to use some of the $1 million it will receive in July for fleet-conversion incentives.
Alan Mosley, vice president of transportation, energy and logistics for JAX Chamber, called the forthcoming CNG station "a marker."
"There's been so much talk about compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas," Mosley said. "It's a real big moment for the industry and really puts an exclamation point behind what we've been talking about."
Mosley said the most immediate impact will be in trucking. He said it's difficult to tell if natural-gas use will reach every-day drivers of passenger vehicles.
"It's a start," Mosley said. "It's going to be in large, what we call urban, fleets. I think we are maybe two years away, maybe sooner, from having five of these publicly accepted stations in Duval and St. Johns counties."
Still, a public-access station for CNG use bolsters Jacksonville's involvement in the industry, Mosley said.
"I think it's a validation. It's certainly market-driven. This is the market addressing a need. There have been some stations out there, but they have not had the public accessibility feature that this one will have. This is real."
The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville