Utility Files to Build Refueling Stations for Natural Gas Vehicles

New Jersey Natural Gas asks regulators to approve a $15 million plan for compressed natural gas infrastructure

New Jersey Natural Gas is wasting no time in trying to help the state develop the infrastructure for compressed natural gas vehicles, a recommendation made in the recently overhauled draft Energy Master Plan (EMP).

The Wall Township utility yesterday submitted a filing with state regulators requesting approval to invest up to $15 million to build compressed natural gas vehicle refueling stations in Monmouth, Ocean and Morris Counties at private and public facilities throughout its service territory.

The proposal, if approved, would aid the state’s efforts to boost the market for alternative fuel vehicles, a strategy that could reduce reliance on petroleum-based fuels and result in lower transportation costs for both businesses and consumers.

Increased Tensions

Still, it is likely to increase tensions between the environmental community and the Christie administration. Conservationists generally believe that building the infrastructure for plug-in electric vehicles ought to be a higher priority than deploying one for natural gas, a fossil fuel.

The utility projects it could build between seven and 10 refueling stations at host facilities within its service territory. The stations would be used to refuel vehicles owned by the private company and would also be available to the public.

“By building the infrastructure to refuel natural gas vehicles, New Jersey Natural Gas can help stimulate the market for alternative fuel vehicles as well as economic development in our state,” said Laurence Downes, chairman and chief executive of New Jersey Natural Gas.

By promoting a market for natural gas vehicles, the utility argued it would overcome one of the major obstacles holding back this type of transport, the lack of refueling infrastructure. Currently, there are only three refueling stations in the state that are open to the public.

A Small Radius

The Energy Master Plan suggested natural gas could readily be used to fuel fleets of waste haulers, package and beverage delivery vehicles and other fleets operating in a small radius around businesses.

“High diesel fuel costs coupled with expensive emission compliance costs make CNG [compressed natural gas] a viable alternative to diesel engine and internal combustion engines,” the plan said.

The plan also suggested natural gas vehicles could be also used to fuel the state’s fleet of buses. There are 77 CNG buses running in New Jersey currently. “New Jersey’s NGV fleet may be expanded in response to federal and state incentives to use CNG for transit,” the plan said.

According to the utility, it also will be cheaper. Based on the pricing structure requested in the filing, the current fuel price would be approximately $1.60 per gasoline gallon equivalent, a big savings for businesses and consumers. Additionally, natural gas-powered vehicles produce up to 30 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than diesel, according to the American Gas Association.

Electric Vehicles

Environmentalists, however, argued that the move to promote natural gas vehicles could undermine the effort to advance electric vehicles.

“Natural gas is not the administration’s best choice,” said Dena Mottola Jabroska, director of Environment New Jersey. “Electric cars are by far the better technology for the future.”

A New Jersey company, NRG Energy of Princeton, which has expressed interest in building the infrastructure for plug-in vehicles in the state, already is building a system of refueling stations in and around Houston, Texas.

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed. “[Natural gas vehicles] will promote more burning of fossil fuels,” he said, which could lead to the expansion of more natural gas pipelines through environmentally sensitive areas like the New Jersey Highlands.

The environmentalists also were concerned that promoting greater use of natural gas would accelerate the expansion of hydraulic fracturing drilling in Pennsylvania and New York, a technology they oppose because of threats to drinking water supplied by the Delaware River.

The filing also heightens their concerns that the new Energy Master Plan puts a greater emphasis on promoting the use of natural gas, instead of renewable energy. The state is currently engaged in a controversial effort to subsidize the construction of three new natural gas-fired power plants that would add nearly 2,000 megawatts of generating capacity, a move that officials believe would lower energy bills for businesses and consumers.

If approved by the state Board of Public Utilities, New Jersey Natural Gas would begin building the stations immediately, but no later than December 31, 2012. The cost to its customers would be effective early in 2013, but would be minimal. The total anticipated impact for the average residential customer would be no more than a four-tenths of one percent increase, the utility said.

While environmentalists push plug-in vehicles, there are administration officials who worry that the increased energy use from electric cars could put a further strain on a burdened power grid that already boosts prices for consumers and businesses in New Jersey.