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Duke opts not to use alternative fuel

The University will soon replace nearly a quarter of its current bus fleet with seven new buses, but administrators say they did not consider alternative fuel technology in this latest round of purchases.

Cathy Reeve, director of parking and transportation services, said the technology is not yet advanced enough. "That is something I do believe we need to look at," she said, adding that the University has purchased two Toyota Priuses, which are diesel-electric hybrid cars.

One of the most popular alternative fuels is compressed natural gas. Nearly 82,000 such vehicles are currently operated in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Results have been mixed. Although natural gas vehicles are cleaner than their diesel counterparts, their drawbacks have outweighed the environmental benefits for some consumers.

According to The Daily Utah Chronicle, the student-run paper at the University of Utah, the school encountered nagging problems with its five new natural gas-powered buses, including frequent mechanical problems, small gas tanks and feeble engines that struggled to climb hills around campus.

"They're really bad.... They have no power. The people that work on them don't know how to work on them," said Ken Searles, Utah's fleet manager. He added that the school has no plans to purchase any more compressed natural gas buses.

Duke administrators say there are other factors that make natural gas bus transportation unappealing. Joe Honeycutt, assistant fleet maintenance manager, said that natural gas buses are too expensive and impractical at this time.

The University does not own a fueling station for compressed natural gas, and Reeve estimated that installing one would cost between $300,000 and $500,000. The buses themselves would cost $125,000 to $150,000 more than a standard diesel bus.

In addition, the natural gas is stored on top of the vehicle, which means that the buses could not clear the East Campus bridge, said Honeycutt, forcing the University to spend even more to increase the clearance.

Honeycutt said the only advantage to the buses is reduced emissions, adding that the maintenance and mileage would not be significantly improved over diesel buses.

There are many other forms of alternative technology, including diesel-electric and fuel cell vehicles, but Transportation Services did not examine these in great detail outside of the new vans. "There's not a good product out there now," said Reeve.

Duke Student Government has encouraged the administration to look at alternative fuel-powered buses, but has primarily focused on other goals, such as minimizing large crowds for buses between classes and increasing the frequency of buses along the Science Drive route. "[The alternative fuel issue] is really on the back burners right now," said sophomore Clifford Davison, a member of DSG's facilities and athletics committee.

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