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Fleet maintenance: Companies look to alternatives when calculating the price of fuel
David Tate works on a truck at Jackson Electric Membership Corp. Jackson EMC has a fleet of 250 to 275 trucks and administrators must now keep up with daily fluctuations in fuel prices. - photo by Tom Reed

For public utilities, responding at a moment’s notice is the rule. There is no time to worry about the price of diesel fuel when your customers’ lights are off.

But for administrators at Jackson Electric Membership Corp., keeping a wary eye on fuel cost is a daily chore. Prices, which at one time may have held steady for days, are now a daily fluctuation. When an order is placed for fuel, the price is subject to change, up or down, by the next morning.

At Georgia Power Co., the state’s largest electric utility, a five-year process of changing electric power meters to an automated system is under way. The company will replace 420,000 meters in 2008, including many in the Gainesville area, said Carol Boatright, Georgia Power spokeswoman.

The process continues, reaching a peak of 574,000 new meters in 2010. By 2012, the meter exchange will be completed, eliminating the need for meter readers.

Jim Smith, vice president for engineering and operations at Jackson EMC said the cooperative was quickly moving forward with its automated metering project.

"The last numbers we used were last year’s fuel costs and those have changed dramatically," Smith said, adding that this year’s cost will make the changeover more cost effective. "We may get a wholesale rate on our fuel, but the increase we pay is in line with what you’re seeing at the retail pump."

Where possible, Jackson is using smaller vehicles, including a number of hybrids, and company meetings involving travel are being held to a minimum.

Jackson has a total of 250 to 275 vehicles, including large bucket trucks in which diesel fuel usage is measured in hours of operation, not miles.

Dwayne Ansley, director of operations services, said that the largest trucks are dispatched from the nearest point. Upon arriving, the vehicle’s engine continues to run to provide power for the hydraulic system to raise and lower the bucket.

"With having a heavier fleet, the diesel side has increased much more than the gasoline side," Smith said.

Jackson uses a number of contractors to complete various projects, most of whom are now charging more for fuel, Smith said.

"Some of those contractors ask for a fuel clause that when it gets to a certain cost, it triggers an increase," he said. "Some don’t, but now the ones who didn’t are now coming and asking for it."

Ansley said contractors who had long-term contracts with Jackson began activating the fuel clauses for the first time this quarter.

"We’re having to watch not only the fuel we use, but the fuel our contractors use, which we are paying for indirectly," Ansley said.

Georgia Power is presently testing three hybrid bucket trucks in the Atlanta area. The hybrid provides power for the hydraulic system without having to continuously run the engine.

Boatright said the hybrid cuts back in both fuel usage and vehicle emission.

While the companies continue to look for ways to save, they are caught in a difficult situation.

"We have an obligation and we can’t just stop running our trucks to maintain service. We have to be out there," Ansley said.

He said Jackson’s drivers are being cautioned to limit trips, limiting the number of vehicles and idle time when possible.

"The fuel cost is having an impact and they need to do everything to help us out," Ansley said.

Administratively, Smith said the company has cut down on trips between its locations in Jefferson, Gainesville, Lawrenceville and Neece.

"From the top of the company down, we’ve been told to consolidate meetings, carpool to meetings, and handle them by teleconference when we can," Smith said.