The race for the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination is heating up and alternate energy has become an issue the two leading contenders are focusing on as Alabama’s June primary nears.
Alabama Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks and U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, have been going all-out to spotlight the need for alternate fuel sources to cut back on foreign oil dependency.
As they traverse Alabama in search of votes, they mention many subjects, including the declining economy and high unemployment rates, but energy is among other topics drawing their interest as well as those who listen to them.
Sparks recently called a news conference at his office to announce a three-year fuel efficiency study has begun on 11 state vehicles, including the one he drives, to see how much can be saved using liquid propane (LP) as a gasoline supplement.
As soon as the news conference ended, Sparks and key staff members went outside to show reporters what is being done to utilize propane to cut costs.
The commissioner personally pumped 10 gallons of LP into his Ford Expedition, occasionally looking back at the storage tank where the fuel is kept at state headquarters.
The agriculture department has more than 200 cars and trucks on the road throughout the year and Sparks believes LP gas can save the state thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars in fuel costs in the future.
Charlie Stafford, a regional sales executive with Blossman Propane Gas in Daphne, watched as Sparks pumped and made it clear LP may not be the answer to fuel efficiency, but it’ll certainly be a big help once it’s tested.
"Obviously, we don’t think this is the silver bullet in the gun, but we feel it is part of other things that will make us energy self-sufficient and not dependent on foreign oil," said Stafford.
Sparks is practicing what he preaches and has often used the propane supplement during his trips around the state.
He said he once drove his Expedition to Gadsden and couldn’t have been happier during the 300-mile roundtrip. He said he felt "no difference" in handling, especially on hills, during use of propane. Once it was used up, his vehicle switched over to gasoline.
It costs about $5,800 to outfit each of the 11 vehicles, but Sparks said savings from using propane will quickly pay for that expense during the 36-month test period.
At the time of the demonstration, gasoline was selling for an average of $2.50 a gallon while propane was going for $1.60 a gallon. That price dropped to $1.10 a gallon once a 50-cent per gallon federal tax credit was applied.
"The numbers are overwhelming on just what you can save," said Stafford, who indicated millions of dollars can be saved in the years to come once state vehicles begin to switch to a propane supplement. "The future is here, yet it’s still in its infancy stages."
Liquid propane isn’t the only alternate fuel source being used or considered by state officials, including Sparks, and Stafford praised them for their "forward thinking."
He specifically praised Sparks and Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Glen Zorn for "leading the way."
"We owe a deep debt of gratitude to them," said Stafford, referring to the two men. "They’ve been so involved from the get-go on alternate fuel from bio-diesel to ethanol and now with propane. Those guys are trying to save taxpayers money and clean up the environment as well."
Lisa Fountain, executive director of the Alabama Propane Gas Association, watched as Sparks pumped LP gas into his vehicle. She said she was hopeful the experiment will be successful, but cautioned it will take a while before the answers are in.
"We don’t have all the data right now, but, once it’s in, it will be transmitted up to Washington where it will be analyzed," she said.
Sparks said in a written statement issued prior to his news conference he hopes the pilot project "will show transportation costs can be reduced while also using a cleaner fuel."
In addition to the propane study, Sparks also announced details of a new loan program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Industries.
Aimed at helping Alabamians who live in rural areas like the Black Belt region, the program will provide money to the state at a one percent interest rate. The funds can then be lent to businesses throughout the state as a way to help those working on alternative fuel sources.
The loans will be available to minorities and women in 17 Black Belt counties including rural areas in Montgomery County.
"We hope to continue to focus on alternative fuel development and delivery as we believe these kinds of businesses in rural and qualifying areas will enhance energy security and job creation," Sparks said.
Those counties involved in the federal loan program include Barbour, Bullock, Choctaw, Crenshaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Montgomery, Perry, Pickens, Pike, Russell, Sumter and Wilcox.
Sparks said the money may be used to help city and county governments in the area to fuel their vehicles "or for a variety of other projects that can cut costs."
The nation’s concern over foreign oil dependency hasn’t been lost on Davis either. The congressman has been focusing much of his attention on that issue ever since he announced his candidacy for governor.
During the recent Alabama Renewable Energy Conference at Auburn University, Davis brought up another factor in solving America’s increased concern over foreign oil prices and how linked the U.S. is to those who control the source of that energy.
He focused on "biomass," a renewable energy source that can be obtained from a variety of existing "contributors"—from tree stumps to tall grass.
Much of that source, Davis pointed out during the conference, is available in Alabama’s Black Belt — the poorest region of the state where unemployment in some counties has topped 20 percent and isn’t getting any better.
He said conversion of "biomass" into energy that can propel vehicles, run factories or be used for a variety of other reasons may not be around the corner, but lauded Auburn University as a research institution that can help in that development.
"It can happen in the next decade," Davis said. "We can be a leader on the research front and there is no reason why Auburn University should not be at the forefront in 2019 of alternative energy research in this country."
He used "2019" for a good reason. That’s the 200th anniversary of statehood for Alabama and, in his way of thinking, cause for celebrating if, by then, something has been done to help ease foreign oil dependency.
"I have no idea how good the football team will be, but you have every capacity of winning the national championship in the area of researching alternative energy," Davis said.
His remarks were made a few weeks before the university hosted the annual Iron Bowl game between Auburn and Alabama.
The game was won by Alabama by five points, but the Tigers pushed the Tide to the limit — illustrating Davis’ prediction that Auburn University scientists and researchers have the capability of helping America solve its energy problems.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.