News that the city is even considering alternative fuels for its proposed new fueling station has NYSERDA officials so excited that they want the city to apply for a grant to start construction.
The New York state Energy Research and Development Authority called the idea of alternative fueling tanks welcome news and urged the city to go ahead with it.
“I would certainly hope they apply,” said spokesman Sal Graven, referring to the agency’s grant program.
But city Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen said he has a long way to go before he determines whether alternative fuels make sense for the new station. It would only supply municipal vehicles.
“You’ve got to look at your fleet, the availability of the fuel, you may have to modify your equipment to dispense it, it isn’t the same modification in every vehicle … ” he began, rattling off the questions he has yet to answer. “There’s a lot of different things we have to examine. But I think we owe it to the taxpayers to consider it, especially since the opportunity presents itself.”
Two of the top alternative fuel possibilities for a municipal fleet are biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol, Graven said. But both have disadvantages. The biggies: they still pollute and they might cost more than regular diesel.
“There is no one silver bullet that’s going to answer our need to sever our connection to imported oil,” Graven said.
Biodiesel could probably only be used to replace 10 percent of the city’s regular diesel. Blending it at a higher concentration could cause the fuel to freeze in the Northeast’s cold weather, Graven said.
The state DOT fleet uses 10 percent biodiesel, which Graven said should work for Schenectady as well.
“It is B10, so the freezing issue becomes less likely. B20 would probably be pushing it,” he said.
Biodiesel is cheaper than regular diesel right now, but Graven said he can’t predict which fuel would be cheaper in the long run.
“Much like ethanol, biodiesel is going to be subject to market pressures, depending on the sale of diesel,” he said. “When gasoline goes to $3.50 a gallon, ethanol is a deal.”
And although biodiesel still pollutes, it’s at least a little better than diesel. The crop-based fuels are considered less polluting because crops absorb carbon dioxide while they are growing. In some cases they absorb as much as the end-result fuel will create.
“Different crops absorb different levels of carbon dioxide. But biodiesel is a better alternative than diesel. It has less emissions,” Graven said.
Cellulosic ethanol, which is created from grasses instead of corn, could also be considered, he said.
“It’s more renewable than corn,” he said. “The future development in alternative fuels will take us from corn-based ethanol to cellulosic ethanol.”
The only problem is that it’s not easy to find a supplier yet. But two plants are being built in the state now, including one in Rome, Graven said.
He acknowledged that none of the fuels are a perfect replacement for gasoline, but said they offer one definite improvement over oil.
“It is produced locally. It is energy dollars remaining in the state,” he said.
Olsen plans to focus closely on the environmental benefits of each alternative fuel and their cost — particularly the cost to retrofit vehicles or build different fuel tanks. Without the answers to those questions, the station is estimated to cost $605,000.
“In most instances, the cost exceeds the benefit, which is why you go for subsidies like the NYSERDA grants,” Olsen said.
He also wants to build a station that can still be used years from now, when alternative fuels may be the norm.
“You’re not going to rebuild that facility every two years,” he said. “We don’t want to limit ourselves in the future.”
For now, the only thing he knows for sure is that the new station will be bigger. The Foster Avenue station has two 7,200-gallon tanks now, which must be filled up every three weeks.
“Those tanks are not big enough,” Olsen said.
That creates the chance to build for the future as well as putting bigger tanks in the ground.
“Obviously that’s an opportunity. I don’t want to sell myself short,” he said.
More from The Daily Gazette: