By Mariam Harutiunian, AFP
Cut off from world energy markets, Armenia is making a virtue of adversity and may be leading the world in using cleaner car fuel, officials say. While the European Union is looking at 2020 before 10 percent of vehicles there will use alternative fuel, in Armenia up to 30 percent of cars already run on clean compressed gas, officials here say.
This statistic includes about 45,000 private cars and 90 percent of public transport. Such high levels of clean fuel use are due "to the fact that Armenia, which has no energy resources of its own, is trying to use the most affordable alternative fuel," said Pavel Siradeghian, a transport ministry official.
In this the ex-Soviet republic appears be leading a trend. Around the world some five million vehicles are run on compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas, according to the United States energy department's Internet site. Natural gas vehicles are just as safe as conventional petrol and diesel-fuelled ones and produce lower harmful emissions, the
In Armenia, the switch has its origins in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Before then, Armenia got petrol from its oil-rich neighbor Azerbaijan, but after the two countries plunged into a war over the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorny Karabakh, Armenia cut ties with both Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Armenia buys its gas from Russia for 110 dollars (77 euros) per 1,000 cubic meters, with 84 percent of the population having access to gas at home. The gas used for cars is three or four times cheaper than petrol and half the price of diesel fuel "and so people convert to gas of their own accord," Siradeghian said. The gas containers are usually imported from Russia or Italy and are installed in the car's trunk at licensed centers -- an operation that costs the equivalent of 700 to 1,000 dollars (530-760 euros).
"Even with such high installation prices it's cheaper to use gas than petrol. A 20-liter-canister of petrol would cost some 17 dollars, while topping up with gas costs only four dollars," said the head of Yerevan's Ultra taxi service, Aram Hachian, who has converted all his cars.
"If we used petrol, many people here wouldn't be able to afford a taxi," he said. Armenia currently has 140 filling stations equipped with gas compressing equipment.
"Drivers have no fear of being left without fuel," Siradeghian said.
But some admit the choice has been forced on them. "If I were rich, I'd fill my car with petrol because gas is bad for your engine and it is not very nice carrying an 80-kilogram container in your trunk," said one Yerevan resident, 37-year-old Artem.
At the country's environment ministry, officials hail the benefits of increased gas use after the damage done to the environment in the 1990s. "Switching to gas has been a real salvation for... Armenia, whose forests suffered very much during the energy crisis," said environment official Martin Tsarukian.
"Gas-using cars emit half the amount of nitric oxide than petrol-driven cars," he said. "Conversion to gas was an economic necessity, but there have been ecological benefits as a result."
The ministry is aware that the popularity of compressed gas could be time-limited if the country pulls itself out of economic hardship -- the average salary is currently 100 dollars a month. But it is now looking at ways of ensuring drivers stick to compressed gas – for example through tax benefits.