By STUART KORFHAGE
stuart.korfhage@staugustine.com

A change to a fleet of compressed natural gas (CNG)-powered vehicles has St. Johns County officials talking about all the money that will be saved.

Meanwhile, leaders at Nopetro, which will build and operate the CNG filling station here, are hoping to use the St. Augustine facility to further its goal of becoming the top CNG provider in the state.

Nopetro CEO Jorge Herrera said having a station along the northern part of Florida’s Interstate 95 corridor creates more potential for transport throughout the state by CNG-powered vehicles.

The more available locations for fuel, the more likely companies and municipalities will be to consider changing to natural gas.

“The strategic importance of St. Johns County is having a node in Northeast Florida,” Herrera said. “It’s about strategic locations. It adds tremendous value to the network.”

The County Commission approved a plan Tuesday for Nopetro to build a fueling station at the intersection of State Road 16 and Industry Drive.

In a private-public partnership, Nopetro has agreed to build the fueling station (at a cost of about $2 million) on land the county will provide. Nopetro will pay $40,000 a year to lease the property after sales of the equivalent of 300,000 gallons of CNG or the first month of the third year of the 25-year contract.

The county, in turn, has agreed to purchase fuel from Nopetro during the length of the contract. The county will use grants to pay most of the cost of converting to CNG fuel.

The North Florida Transportation Planning Organization has a $734,000 reimbursement available to counties planning to convert engines using gasoline or diesel to those run by CNG fuel cells. (The county vehicles would actually be bi-fuel for reasons of practicality.)

Also, there is a state grant worth $250,000 per year for up to six years for a county converting to CNG vehicles.

“The crux of the private-public partnership is they don’t have to make a capital outlay,” Herrera said. “In exchange for that, the (county) commits to use us for its (CNG needs).”

In addition to the county, waste management companies Advanced Disposal and Republic Services have both agreed to use some CNG-powered trucks and the county fueling station when it is built.

Herrera said his goal is to convince the St. Johns County School District to become a client by converting its bus fleet to use CNG.

He said a similar partnership in Leon County saw rapid growth in the transition to CNG and hopes to see similar success here.

“Once they try the technology, they begin to aggressively transition,” Herrera said. “Everybody is going to benefit both financially and environmentally.”

County public works director Neal Shinkre said Tuesday that the switch will save an estimated $5 million over the next 20 years. The county will also receive royalties of 10 cents per gallon of CNG that the Nopetro facility sells to private clients.

So if Nopetro reaches its goal of getting more commercial fleets to also use CNG, both the company and the county stand to benefit.

Shinkre already knows what the county will do with the money saved.

He asked for and received approval to start the process of getting a new public works building constructed.

The cost will be about $12 million and will house five divisions of public works. It will replace a building that’s nearly 50 years old. To pay for the building, the county will take out a loan, paying about $900,000 per year to pay it off in 20 years.

“The building does not have any growth left in it,” Shinkre said. “There is no room at all for any new offices.”

There are also concerns it won’t survive a rough storm season.

“We need to make this replacement for this building anyway,” Commissioner Cyndi Stevenson said Tuesday. “The first responders can’t get to where they need to go unless public works can do what they need to do. And if their building falls down, we’re in pretty big trouble.”

County Administrator Michael Wanchick said funding the new building with savings in fuel and other revenue generated by the CNG station is a great way to save tax money for a needed project.

“Today’s presentation is the third public building that’s somewhere between 40 and 50 years old that we’ve found a way to greatly reduce the cost of replacing those buildings to the general public,” Wanchick said at Tuesday’s meeting. “This building had to be replaced. If this deal hadn’t come along, you would have been faced with funding the cost of the whole building just straight up.

“These are some creative solutions in difficult times.”