The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is preparing to practice what it preaches. It's converting to natural gas.
During the next several years, about 500 trucks and vans in the utility's fleet of 900 gasoline-burning vehicles will be converted to burn natural gas.
In addition, BG&E plans to build 20 natural gas filling stations across its service area by 1995. The stations will fuel both BG&E's own trucks and those of other commercial fleets expected to convert to natural gas during the 1990s in order to meet new federal clean air standards.
BG&E also is negotiating with several oil companies to install natural gas filling pumps at commercial gasoline stations.
A year into an 18-month pilot program to test the costs and benefits of conversion, BG&E believes it has the data to demonstrate that natural gas performs "better than what we thought in terms of efficiency and maintenance," said Ellis W. Woessner, supervisor of industrial and commercial gas business development.
Woessner spoke yesterday at BG&E's energy-efficient "Smart House" in Woodlawn as part of the official kickoff for Conserve 2000, a cooperative effort by the utility and state government to promote and market energy conservation by industrial, residential and government consumers.
Woessner said natural gas offers fleet managers several advantages over gasoline:
* It's cheaper, selling now at the gasoline equivalent of 80 cents a gallon, about 30 cents a gallon below gasoline prices, applicable taxes included. BG&E is asking the state Public Service Commission to allow the price of natural gas sold as a motor fuel to rise and fall with gasoline prices, always maintaining that 30-cent advantage.
* It's cleaner, producing far fewer carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions than gasoline, and none of the carcinogenic soot. It is one of the "clean" fuels mandated for use by fleets with 10 vehicles or more under the federal Clean Air Act signed last year by President Bush.
* It's low-maintenance, extending oil and spark-plug change intervals and reducing engine wear. BG&E expects its converted vehicles will last six years on average, one year better than gasoline-powered vehicles.
* It's homemade, reducing the fuel's vulnerability to events in the Middle East. Nearly all natural gas sold in the United States is produced here or in Canada.
Woessner said there are costs to conversion.
Adding tanks for compressed natural gas, fuel lines, valves and other equipment to a conventional gasoline engine costs $2,500 to $3,000 per vehicle.
He estimates that the parts and labor will pay for themselves in fuel cost savings in 4 1/2 years.
Woessner said General Motors and Chrysler are expected to produce vehicles with factory-installed conversion kits by early next year.
The General Motors Lumina vans converted as part of BG&E's pilot program have a range of just 172 miles, and suffer a 10 percent power loss due to limitations in the fuel system.
GM and Chrysler plan to build engines by 1995 designed specifically to burn natural gas.
That, Woessner said, should eliminate the 10 percent power loss in converted gasoline engines.
Although BG&E is targeting commercial and government fleet operators, it is mindful that private car owners may also begin to switch to natural gas.
Woessner said the BG&E computer-controlled energy Smart House soon will have a natural gas filling station added to its many futuristic conveniences. Gas customers with cars that burn natural gas may one day fill up their tanks overnight at home. Fill-ups at commercial stations are quicker, about seven minutes.
During its test program, BG&E bought 12 identical Chevrolet Lumina vans and converted six to natural gas. Four other company vehicles also were switched.
The utility has also converted six vehicles owned by the state Department of Energy. Three of the six are running on natural gas alone. The others are bi-fuel vehicles, able to convert from gas to gasoline by throwing a switch on the --board when greater range is needed.
BG&E's Conserve 2000 program represents a turning point for the utility, during which it will be aggressively marketing energy conservation services and appliances that are designed, in effect, to help the company sell less energy.
The turnabout has come after years of pressure from the Public Service Commission and consumer groups who argue that it is cheaper and more environmentally sound to meet growing power demands through conservation programs than by building new generating stations.
BG&E expects the Conserve 2000 program will cut demand by 10 percent by the year 2000.
That's a reduction equal to 750 megawatts, or more than enough to avoid building a power plant the size of the coal-burning Brandon Shores Unit 2 in Anne Arundel County.
Earlier this year, BG&E agreed to move aggressively to market energy conservation technologies in exchange for assurances from the state regulators that it could recoup its investments in the rates paid by consumers.
BG&E Chairman George V. McGowan said yesterday at Smart House ceremonies that "conservation works, economically and environmentally, for all of us."
The Conserve 2000 effort "provides savings to our rate payers and our customers . . . and it helps businesses across the state increase their competitive edge by lowering their energy costs," he said.
Maryland's People's Counsel, John M. Glynn, who represents residential consumers before the Public Service Commission, said, "I've sensed, in the last three to six months, a real refocusing of energy on the part of [BG&E] to not producing as much energy.
"We're working real hard to respond to the issue . . . of making sure that the company is treated fairly in terms of rates. One of the tasks of the regulators is to at least hold them harmless to the consequences of doing the right thing."