AT&T’s (s T) plans to make one of the largest U.S. purchases to date of compressed natural gas vehicles made natural gas backer T. Boone Pickens giddy enough to tweet about the announcement when it came out earlier this year. But an important detail was left open: Who would convert 8,000 vehicles for what AT&T expects to be a five-year $350 million project? Today AT&T announced that Dallas-based BAF Technologies has won part of the job — converting 600 Ford (s F) E-Series vans to run on CNG by the end of the year.
This comes as part of AT&T’s larger plan to spend $565 million deploying more than 15,000 alt-fuel vehicles, and retire an estimated 7,100 gasoline-powered vehicles from its fleet over the next decade. For the fleet’s CNG vehicles, which, according to the trade group Natural Gas Vehicles for America, produce only about 20 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than a standard gas vehicle (an improvement that’s not much better than corn-based ethanol, and modest enough for venture capitalist Vinod Khosla to call natural gas vehicles a “dead end“), one of the main challenges has to do with infrastructure — natural gas fueling stations in the U.S. number in the low thousands, compared with more than 200,000 gas stations.
As we noted earlier this year, AT&T plans to add 40 more stations to support its new vehicles, working with natural gas service providers (still unnamed). And while Pickens hasn’t tweeted about that yet (the Pickens Plan team on Twitter does point out that new tax incentives in Oklahoma have reportedly helped convince AT&T to deploy 30 of the CNG vans there), his Clean Energy Fuels, which builds natural gas filling stations and provides the fuel for fleets, could be in the running for this kind project.
At this point, AT&T still has the bulk of its budget for this technology, and there’s no indication that BAF has a lock on the rest of the $350 million. Pickens may have renewed our interest earlier this month with his investment in V-Vehicle — a stealthy startup working on an efficient gas-fueled car. But AT&T’s upcoming investments could help breathe new life into the Pickens Plan, if only by showing a large-scale, real world application for a tech that has yet to gain much traction among many carmakers, entrepreneurs and government agencies with stimulus funds.
Vehicle photo credit AT&T; compressed natural gas fueling station map courtesy National Renewable Energy Laboratory