TAMPA — Every year, the city of Tampa buys about 1.4 million gallons of gasoline and diesel to power its vehicle fleet.
Averaging nearly $4 a gallon, it adds up quickly. This year alone, fuel costs added $1.6 million to the city’s expenses.
Hoping to take the edge off those costs, the city is turning to natural gas.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn unveiled Tampa’s first five natural-gas garbage trucks last year, going so far as to fuel one himself at one of Tampa’s few natural-gas fueling stations just outside the bounds of Tampa International Airport.
The city will add five more compressed natural gas-powered trash trucks this summer and another 10 to 15 more by the end of the year. That will wean about 12 percent of the city’s trash trucks off diesel by early 2015, Solid Waste Director Mark Wilfak said this last week.
Next year, the city will add its own fueling station at the Solid Waste offices on Spruce Street, Wilfak said. The station will let trucks few overnight.
The city’s interest in natural-gas vehicles is part of a nationwide shift in tractor-trailers, buses, garbage trucks and other heavy vehicles — long known for contributing to air pollution by belching plumes of acrid diesel smoke.
Cleaner air is one benefit from the switch to natural gas, but the biggest motivator is money, said Richard Kolodziej, president of the NGVAmerica, a trade group that promotes the use of natural gas-powered cars and trucks.
For years now, natural gas has been replacing coal as the preferred fuel for power plants because it costs less and creates less pollution, particularly greenhouses gases and soot. With production booming across the country, natural gas now costs about $1.50 less per gallon than diesel, making it attractive for cities and companies that spend millions each year fueling up low-mileage vehicles.
“The bottom line is everyone makes the decision on cost,” Kolodziej said.
Trash hauler Waste Management Inc., which covers part of Hillsborough County, is making the change and has built its own natural-gas fueling station in Tampa.
HART, the Tampa area’s transit agency, plans to open its own natural-gas depot near the end of this month. The station at 4305 E. 21st Ave. was built with $5.5 million in state, federal and local funds. The single-largest share — $2.3 million — came from U.S. Department of Transportation.
When the station opens April 24, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit will use it to fuel 28 brand-new passenger vans used for its HARTFlex and HARTPlus services. The new vans will replace the current fleet of gasoline-powered vehicles, said HART spokeswoman Sandy Morrison.
HART has already ordered 22 CNG-powered buses, which should hit the road about this time next year, replacing an equal number of diesel buses, Morrison said.
By the end of 2015, HART expects to have more than a third of its 177 buses powered by natural gas, she said.
“For us, it was a no-brainer,” said Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez, who also chairs the HART board of directors. “It’s kind of a best-practices approach now.”
Suarez, who leads the city council’s public works committee, said he’d like to see the city and HART combine forces on a station as a way to reduce expenses for each group.
The HART fueling station is being developed by Clean Energy Fuels, the same company that operates the public fueling station near South Avenue and Cargo Road just outside the gates of Tampa International.
Clean Energy spokesman Patric Rayburn wouldn’t reveal how much natural gas the station has sold since it opened in 2011.
“The station’s volume is very good and meeting our expectations,” he said. “We are very optimistic.”
Tampa trash trucks aren’t the only ones using Clean Energy’s station. Rayburn said private trash hauler Progressive Waste fuels 22 trash trucks there. Airport vehicles also fuel up there. So do Bright House Networks vehicles.
Federal incentives have helped drive the switch to natural-gas vehicles, Rayburn said.
Natural-gas vehicles cost more up upfront, but a combination of lower fuel costs and government subsidies can shorten the time it takes for the vehicles to pay for themselves, he said.
“The goal is to achieve pay-back within one year,” he said.
So far, Tampa’s foray into natural gas is limited to garbage trucks. Converting the city’s fleet of cars and light trucks would cost too much in equipment and manpower to be worth it now, said Irv Lee, the city’s public works director.
“There are better ways to achieve the same economy,” Lee said.