The bulky people-movers Georgia Southern University employs to transport its students around campus are far from thought when identifying clean, environmentally friendly vehicles found on Statesboro city streets.
Looks - and size for that matter - can be deceiving, though, because the university transits are now in a sixth year of operation as natural gas-powered vehicles, leading the way in a statewide move toward alternative fuels.
"Georgia Southern is leading the way," said Tim Echols, member of the utility-regulating Georgia Public Service Commission. "I'm proud of GSU. They are really setting an example for all of our colleges and universities. I wish more schools would follow the lead."
Christian Flathman, director of Marketing and Communications for the school, said nine of the school's 14 Southern Express transits run on the alternative fuel source. There are no plans, though, to convert any additional buses, according to the university.
"The bus system began with diesel buses in 2005, and started featuring vehicles using cleaner-burning compressed natural gas (CNG) as a fuel in 2006," Flathman said.
Georgia Southern's move to power its fleet with CNG is unique among Georgia colleges - the University of Georgia turned down a program, while Georgia Tech and Georgia State University remain in preliminary discussions - according to Echols.
"We are always open to the best green fuels that are out there. Whatever seems to be the most cost effective and environmentally friendly solution is something that we look towards," said Dr. Lissa Leege, director of the Center for Sustainability in the Allen E. Paulson College of Science and Technology.
"Our resources are limited. If we don't start making changes in the way use resources, and become more efficient, then they won't be around for future generations," she said. "I think it is important, as a university, to serve as a model for the community. We should be teaching people how to be more sustainable."
The move to an alternative fuel source for its buses is one of many university attempts at "going green," according to Leege.
Students and staff have undertaken efforts to save energy and water through a variety of on-campus programs, and the school recently added an environmental sustainability concentration to its curriculum - the program is a first among Georgia colleges said Leege.
The school's transition to compressed natural gas, according to Echols, is a key step in advancing the state's use of alternative fuels.
"It ties in with my overall plan to see Georgia infused with more alternative fuels - or non-foreign fuels," said Echols, while driving his own gas-powered car from Atlanta to Athens. "I'm keen on CNG because it is so cheap and clean. It is the cleanest fossil fuel out there."
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, CNG, which is a mixture of hydrocarbons like methane, propane, nitrogen, helium, and water vapor, "can produce significantly fewer harmful emissions than gasoline or diesel when used in vehicles."
The price of a single gallon, in a program wherein gas companies lease home-fueling stations to individuals, would cost approximately $1.50, according to Echols - The cost of leasing a station would be about $50 a month.
The issue facing proponents of compressed natural gas is a lack of accessibility to fueling stations and limited options for owning a CNG-powered vehicle.
"There are only two public stations in the entire state," said Echols. Both are in the metro-Atlanta area. Though Georgia Southern operates a station to fill its transits, public access is not permitted.
The limited amount of stations dispensing CNG reflects the amount of vehicles needing the fuel.
Though kits can be used to convert engines to run on natural gas, just one car designed to operate on CNG- the Honda Civic GX - is sold in the U.S.
Despite current limitations, Echols is steadfast in a mission to see CNG and other alternative fuels permeate industry and the public sphere, to replace oil and rid America of its foreign dependence.
"I want to see a network of fueling stations built around the state so our citizens can save money and use a cleaner fuel," he said. "Let's get cities around the state, like Statesboro, to use natural gas in their city fleets and make a pump available to the public. The cities can benefit with cheaper, cleaner-burning fuel."
The Republican commissioner is championing efforts to make natural gas the standard for large vehicle fleets throughout the state - like UPS, Fed-Ex and MARTA. The heavy-diesel users can recoup the money used to convert its engines within two years, he said.
"I think CNG is most viable for fleets," said Echols. "The way Georgia Southern has used it is ideal. They are displacing quite a bit of diesel-fuel by using the natural gas. They are definitely making a positive contribution to the air quality in Bulloch County."
According to Echols, more the 400 MARTA buses throughout Atlanta operate on CNG and he would like to see the city of Atlanta offer incentives for taxi services using the fuel.
His plan to systemically increase the number of filling stations throughout the state and transition fleets of vehicles to alternative fuels, is not a final solution, said Echols.
But, "It would be a good start."
Jeff Harrison can be reached at 912-489-9454.