New Jersey Moving Closer to Cheaper, Greener Transportation, Experts Say

Tom Johnson | January 28, 2013 | Energy & Environment
Also on agenda at NJ Spotlight Roundtable: solar, rebuilding infrastructure in wake of Sandy, encouraging energy efficiency

The state is on the cusp of a new era in transportation, one that will be based on vehicles fueled by compressed natural gas, electricity, or propane, according to experts in energy.

That assessment may be realized more quickly for car and trucks powered by natural gas, primarily because of the historically low prices for the fuel, according to panelists at a NJ Spotlight Roundtable Friday on how energy can emerge as a driver in New Jersey’s economy. The roundtable was held at the College of New Jersey.

With millions of homes already heated by natural gas, it may be easier to build the infrastructure needed to supply a cheaper fuel than gasoline to run some of the state’s transportation network, experts agreed at the session sponsored by Public Service Electric & Gas and New Jersey Natural Gas.

“We’re on the verge of a new paradigm in energy,’’ predicted Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), who as chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee is shepherding a package of bills to help develop the infrastructure for alternative vehicles.

Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of PSE&G, agreed. “If you talk about economic development, the move to promote natural gas vehicles could be a major driver in jobs, he said.

“It’s a great, great opportunity for the state,’’ said LaRossa, adding that it does not apply just to commercial fleets. He argued that the state should introduce natural gas vehicles into the ports of New Jersey, a move that would not only create jobs but also reduce air pollution.

Some utilities are trying to make it happen. New Jersey Natural Gas last summer won approval from the state Board of Public Utilities to build five to seven new compressed natural gas (CNG) refueling stations in its territory, according to Thomas Massaro, a vice president of the utility based in Wall Township.

Right now, there are 25 CNG refueling stations in New Jersey, only five of which are open to the public. The new NJG refueling stations would only be open to neighboring commercial fleets, Massaro said.

Eventually, Massaro said, the utility hopes its $10 million investment creates a more favorable environment for switching residential and light vehicles to. “You really that seed in the marketplace first,’’ he said.

Smith argued that the shift to vehicles fueled by natural gas could both lower prices for consumers and reduce air pollution. “The economic potential to simulate New Jersey’s economy is tremendous,’’ he said.

During the wide-ranging discussion, panelists also focused on an array of energy issues, including the state’s once flourishing solar sector; the impact of Sandy on efforts to promote cleaner methods of producing electricity; and ways to reduce consumer and business use of energy.

Smith, who has been involved in legislative efforts to stabilize New Jersey’s once robust solar market, remained optimistic about solar’s future.

“A good, good start, but the funding mechanism — SRECs [solar renewable energy certificates, which govern what owners of solar systems earn for the electricity they produce] — has not become a thrill. We need new ways of funding them,” he said, without providing details.

Despite the widespread damage Sandy caused to the state’s utility infrastructure, most of the panelists agreed that it should not derail New Jersey’s aggressive efforts to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency.

LaRossa suggested as long as commodity prices for natural gas remain low, it should not have an impact.

“So long as the commodity prices continue to come down, there should be plenty of headroom to continue to invest in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and infrastructure,’’ he said. “I don’t think it’s likely to be an either/or.’’

Still, LaRossa suggested that in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the state needs to re-examine its infrastructure. “The infrastructure in New Jersey has to be rethought,’’ he said. “It’s not just the gas and electric, but the water and the wastewater.’’