Future is Now, Not Down the Road, for Alternative-Fuel Vehicles

Experts say keys include funding of incentives and financing to develop infrastructure such as plug-in charging stations

Chuck Feinberg, president of the New Jersey Clean Cities Coalition, says the public needs to be convinced that alternative fuel vehicles are no longer just a thing of the future.
How do you know when the public recognizes a petroleum-driven transportation world is being transformed — if a bit too slowly for some clean-energy advocates — to one powered by cleaner-running vehicles using electricity, natural gas, and other less-polluting fuels?

To Chuck Feinberg, president of the New Jersey Clean Cities Coalition, a nonprofit organization geared toward reducing petroleum usage in the transportation economy, it means convincing the public that alternative-fuel vehicles are no longer a thing of the future.

“My goal is make the take the word alternative out of alternative fuels so that they are mainstream fuels and get broadly deployed and broadly used,’’ Feinberg said during a NJ Spotlight roundtable on “Building NJ’s Infrastructure for a Clean Fuel Future” held Friday at Rider University. He believes we should be using a variety of those fuels, a point driven home by Hurricane Sandy.

“Post-Sandy, one of the things I have been stressing is the need for fuel diversification,’’ Feinberg said, noting that natural- gas vehicles were able to keep running even amid the shortages of gasoline. In Atlantic City, jitney buses fueled by natural gas helped evacuate people during the storm, he added.

Before fuel diversification happens, however, officials in states like New Jersey need to exercise more leadership in ushering in that transition, whether by providing incentives to convert fleets of diesel-fueled vehicles to compressed natural gas or encouraging deployment of plug-in charging stations to address the “range anxiety” of drivers who worry that their electric vehicles may not get them as far as they want to go.

But these things will not happen to the extent that clean-energy advocates wish unless there are increased efforts to educate the public about the economic benefits of cleaner-running vehicles as well as the environmental benefits, especially in a world facing big changes due to global climate change, according to the panelists.

To some extend, the deployment of alternative-fuel vehicles is already happening.

“When people talk about this is the future,’’ said Joseph Rende, regional director for TrilliumCNG, a company building CNG (compressed natural gas) infrastructure with a focus on the Northeast, he notes it is already here in some aspects. Twenty percent of all transit buses in the United States are powered by natural gas; 25 percent of all new transit buses purchased in 2012 are powered by the fuel; and 50 percent of all new refuse trucks bought in the same year are fueled by natural gas, according to Rende.

Across the nation, there are 130,000 natural-gas vehicles on the road today with 632 CNG fueling stations (that number climbs to 1,276 when including privately-run natural refueling stations), according to Rob Gibbs, manager, market strategy and development at Public Service Electric & Gas.

Nonetheless, that number pales in comparison to the 247 million registered vehicles in the U.S. and the 160,000 gas stations, Gibbs said.

“You can see the disparity there and how people, in their own minds, say I’m not sure how I can do this,’’ he said, referring to switching to a car run on electricity, natural gas or other fuels. Still, the utility wants to see its customers consider those options, given the cost savings and environment benefits associated with the vehicles, Gibbs said.

“We think the infrastructure piece has to be answered fairly quickly and fairly broadly and massively,’’ Gibbs said. “Again, when you look at the advantages that diesel and gas have in terms of infrastructure, it is pretty daunting.’’

In New Jersey, the infrastructure piece is developing slowly. Panelists said there are only five publicly-available CNG refueling stations and 120 plug-in electric vehicle recharging stations.

The big question looming over this whole debate is who will finance the building out of an infrastructure to serve plug-in electric cars, natural-gas vehicles and other clean-running vehicles. Most concede governments cannot afford to do so in these fiscally strapped times, but whether it should be driven by private investment or how much utilities should be involved are unanswered questions.

Feinberg acknowledges the state cannot afford to build out the infrastructure for cleaner vehicles, but he also questions whether utilities should do it .

“I think what should be happening is the state should find a way to incentivize fleets and folks to purchase these vehicles,’’ he said, saying if that happens private investment will follow to build the infrastructure.

That already is happening elsewhere, according to Rende, who notes neighboring states have developed incentive programs to convert fleets of vehicles such as heavy-duty trucks and transit.

“What can New Jersey do?’’ asked Rende. “If you look at Pennsylvania and New York, both have vehicle truck incentives program to help make it happen.’’ While CNG-fueled vehicles can reduce fuel costs by up to 50 percent, they also cost more than conventional vehicles.

Despite all the questions, panelists agreed the push to alternative vehicles will continue, no matter how the policy decisions come down.

“There’s some exciting things happening and we’re on the cusp of moving this technology forward,’’ said Mary Barber, director of smart power initiatives for the Environmental Defense Fund.