By DAN TRACY
Orlando Sentinel

The Lynx regional bus company is close to signing a multimillion-dollar deal that would convert its fleet from running on diesel fuel to compressed natural gas within seven years.

The possible agreement with Nopetro calls for the Coral Gables-based firm to spend as much as $7.5 million building a natural gas fueling station, as well as retrofitting an adjacent Lynx maintenance yard on John Young Parkway, Nopetro CEO Jorge Herrera said.

Lynx would pay a surcharge to Nopetro for the natural gas its vehicles use, paying back the company over time for its investment, Herrera said.

Right now, Lynx spends about $3 a gallon for diesel and would give Nopetro about $1.75 for an equivalent amount of natural gas, the additional fee included.

“We couldn’t be more excited for this opportunity,” Herrera said.

Buses get about the same mileage between natural gas and diesel, at a little less than 4 mpg. But, Herrera said, natural gas pollutes less and is produced in abundance within the United States.

Herrera said the Lynx operation could be up and running within a year, if, as expected, the plan is approved by its board in November. The setup would be similar to one Nopetro operates in Tallahassee, where it daily fuels about 150 trucks and buses for the Leon County government, the city and school board, Herrera said.

This is not the first time Lynx has considered natural gas for its 300-bus fleet. Back in the 1990s, the buses that circulate for free in downtown Orlando ran on natural gas. But Lynx dropped the experiment because the buses were not reliable.

The technology has improved since then, Lynx CEO John Lewis and Herrera said, and they predict the plan now being discussed would be a success.

Lewis estimates Lynx could switch over its fleet within seven years because it typically buys 25 to 30 new buses a year, retiring a similar number of older ones. Natural gas buses cost more, Lewis said, at $500,000 apiece vs. $450,000 for ones with diesel engines. But the cheaper fuel costs make natural gas buses a better option over time, he said.

Nopetro also has signed contracts to provide natural gas stations with government agencies in St. John’s and Charlotte counties, Herrera said. Work, he said. is about to or has started on those projects.

In Orlando, the natural gas station also would be open to other fleets and the public, though that operation would be separated by a fence from Lynx, which serves Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties.

Lynx also would receive a small rebate from ever sale to another company or individual – which Lewis estimates would come out to roughly $100,000 annually.

National companies such ATT, Verizon, UPS and Federal Express are converting parts of their fleets to natural gas, according to several national publications.