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New Energy Master Plan Explores Ways to Deploy Infrastructure for Alternative Vehicles

Tom Johnson | December 8, 2011

Transportation infrastructure bank could help speed adoption of clean-energy vehicles.

The state should explore the possibility of establishing a transportation infrastructure bank to support the increased use of alternatively fueled vehicles, according to the latest version of the Energy Master Plan.

While providing few details on how such a proposal would work, the recommendation is being welcomed by various clean energy advocates. Some of them have been frustrated by the slow pace of developing an infrastructure in New Jersey that would spur people to choose cleaner-running vehicles over those powered by gasoline or diesel.

"It's a good way to go," said Chuck Feinberg, chairman of the New Jersey Clean Cities Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of alternative transportation fuels. "In the current climate, we're not going to get any grant program."

"It sounds like a great idea," agreed Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey. "The technology is there for the electric vehicle, but not the infrastructure. New Jersey is well suited to build the infrastructure because it is so densely populated and so small."

The final plan unveiled by the administration talks quite a bit about alternatively fueled vehicles, suggesting that the state encourage owners of fleets of vehicles that are now powered by diesel to convert to natural gas, which would reduce emissions that contribute to air pollution while saving money on fuel costs over the long run.

"They do provide a payback, particularly in the case of natural gas, for the fleet owner, but there's the initial capital cost of building the fueling stations as well as the increased cost of natural gas vehicles," Feinberg said.

While the state's draft energy plan mentioned alternatively fueled vehicles, its recommendations to move in that direction needed to be broadened and deepened, according to a working group that assessed the opportunities of switching to a variety of alternatives, including electricity, natural gas, propane, and biodiesel.

The working group's report recommended the state explore ways to develop more refueling stations for alternative fuels, either by establishing a revolving loan fund or by leveraging private capital.

The transportation infrastructure bank apparently would try to fill that need. It would be modeled somewhat along the line of an environmental infrastructure fund, which helps local governments finance upgrades to sewage treatment plants through low-interest loans floated by a revolving loan fund.

"This would be accomplished in conjunction with other state agencies, utilities, fleet operators, the New Jersey Clean Cities Coalition, and other stakeholders," according to the final energy master plan.

Other alternative fuel advocates are skeptical, saying an infrastructure bank suggests the way it would build the fueling stations is through loans, not grants.

"How are they going to fund it?" asked James Sherman, director of the Northeast Transportation Electrification Alliance. "People need grants to jump start this industry."

Other states have created pools of money to help convert fleets to electrical vehicles or compressed natural gas (CNG), Sherman noted. In New York, there is about $44 million set aside for these efforts in assorted programs run by the state, city ,and other agencies. Some of those programs are funded by a so-called societal benefit charge, similar to what ratepayers in New Jersey pay, but the Christie administration has repeatedly talked about reducing the CBC, according to Sherman.

In New Jersey, the energy master plan suggests a "sensible first step" to spurring the development of fleets of alternatively fueled vehicles is to promulgate incentives to induce certain types of fleets -- such as waste haulers and package and beverage delivery services operating in a comparatively small radius in urban areas -- to switch from diesel fuel to CNG.

The plan also recommends that New Jersey evaluate what infrastructure changes regarding slow- and fast-filling stations, fleet availability, and maintenance and labor are required to retrofit existing vehicles in order to accelerate the substitution of natural gas for oil.

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