Democrat staff writer

Jackie Pons’ push for the use of compressed natural gas vehicles throughout Leon County Schools has caught the attention of the rest of the state.

Now, with 18 compressed natural gas (CNG) stations scheduled to be built within the next 36 months in the southeast, others are following the example.

More than 200 city and county organizations came to the Leon County Civic Center Wednesday to hear Pons’ testimonial and see how they can make the switch to CNG-based vehicles. The CNG Showcase and Symposium was an opportunity for leading CNG distributors to convince city and county entities to ditch diesel-based vehicles in favor of domestic compressed natural gas.

Pons said the event was a chance to discuss the benefits of a public-private partnership — like Leon County Schools’ partnership with Tallahassee-based CNG fueling company Nopetro.

“We’ll be able to show other communities how they can do this with their city government, their county government and their school board,” he said.

Leon County Schools started the transition to CNG buses and vehicles more than a year ago. With the district’s Nopetro partnership, LCS was able to immediately purchase school buses and deploy them along routes throughout the district.

The 44 buses in the LCS fleet make up the majority of CNG buses in the state, said CNG bus distributor Glenn Matthews.

Matthews, president of Matthews Buses Inc., said there are 48 CNG school buses in Florida. By the end of 2014 he said he expects there to be about 100 in service.

“We’ve seen an increased demand,” he said. “Obviously Leon County is leading the way. Putnam County has a couple of CNG buses and Polk County has a couple. Judging by the attendance here there is an interest in a domestic fuel source and it is growing.”

Pons said CNG buses represent a $5,500 savings on yearly fuel costs per bus. Besides district school buses, Nopetro is fueling city of Tallahassee and Leon County vehicles, trucks operated by solid waste hauler WastePro and private vehicles of Lakeland trucking company Saddle Creek Logistics.

Nopetro CEO Jorge Herrera said his company’s partnership with LCS has “surpassed all expectations” so far.

“What began as a vision is now a proven case model with Leon County Schools,” he said. “We’ve developed the most successful and robust CNG fueling operation on the east coast. Now we’re seeing other school districts and counties following and emulating what we’ve done with Leon County Schools.”

The state is behind CNG vehicle usage and is offering incentives to those willing to make the transition to CNG. The symposium was also an opportunity to discuss the effect of legislation approved by Gov. Rick Scott in June.

The new law grants $25,000 rebates for CNG vehicles that replace traditional diesel ones, up to $250,000 per entity. Keith Gruetzmacher, senior manager with Tampa Electric Peoples Gas, spoke during Wednesday’s symposium and said the infrastructure is in place for an easy CNG transition.

“The technology is here,” he said. “It’s proven technology, and we’re seeing other customers doing it, especially in Florida.”

Companies like Nopetro will have to expand quickly in order to keep up with the new demand for CNG buses. Nopetro opened its first public fuel station in Leon County in September 2012 on Capital Circle near Pensacola Street.

Scott Reeves, a waste and recycling specialist for Polk County public schools, said the biggest block to more CNG vehicles is the danger of running out of fuel. Polk County only has one fuel source, which means those buses are deployed on short routes throughout the district.

Reeves said the district is focused on maintaining a cost-effective model when it comes to transitioning to a CNG fleet. A full transition won’t be possible until more fueling stations are available.

“We can’t have a bus drive out, run out of fuel and then have to pay the towing cost to get it back,” he said. “We keep the buses close to the station so they always have a fuel source. With diesel buses we can fuel them anywhere.”

Pons said he wants Leon County Schools to be the example the rest of the state follows when transitioning to CNG vehicles.

“I’m just thankful our community has gotten behind this,” he said. “It’s something you’re going to see around this great nation and throughout this state. I think we’re going to be remembered as one of the first ones to start it.”