Natural Gas, the Other Alternative Fuel for Transportation Sector

Tom Johnson | February 15, 2017 | Energy & Environment
New group hopes to stake claim to big-truck and bus markets, while electric vehicles make inroads into consumer and light-truck sector

natural gas truck
There’s been a lot of talk lately about shifting away from petroleum as the fuel powering the transportation sector, but not nearly as much about tapping natural gas as an alternative.

Chuck Feinberg is hoping to change that. With the goal of broadening the deployment of natural-gas vehicles in the state, he has put together a new group to advance the use of the fuel in transportation and to widen the refueling infrastructure.

To Feinberg, the chairman of the New Jersey Clean Cities Coalition, a nonprofit working to promote the use of alternative fuels, there is a host of factors suggesting the time is right to promote natural gas as a cleaner-burning fuel. They include a new administration in Washington and a new one soon in Trenton; plentiful supplies of low-priced natural gas; and a new generation of natural-gas engines offering “near zero’’ emissions.

“Natural gas is the cleanest alternative-fuel vehicle available on the market today for medium and heavy-duty vehicles,’’ said Feinberg, who also serves on a new coalition formed to promote the deployment of electric vehicles.

He argues the two missions are not in conflict: Electric vehicles are aimed at consumer and light-duty vehicles while natural-gas vehicles (NGV) are aimed at the heavy-duty market, particularly those companies with large fleets.

But it is sure to be an uphill fight. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and one not very popular in many parts of the state with the rapid expansion of new pipelines to tap supplies from the Marcellus Shale formations in Pennsylvania. Many view the fracking technology used to extract the fuel from the ground as a huge threat to the region’s water supplies.

“This may have been a good idea in the 1990s,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey and a frequent critic of the expanding use of the fossil fuel, “but we shouldn’t be doubling down on natural gas.’’

O’Malley argued the electrification of heavy-duty vehicles is already happening, citing technology deployments in ports in California and transit vehicles, such as buses. “This is not pie in the sky,’’ he said.

But Feinberg contends natural-gas vehicles offer a cleaner and safer alternative to the heavy diesel trucks that choke many urban areas with unhealthy air pollution. “Today, and for the next generation, we have to do something about those diesel emissions,’’ Feinberg said.

The other benefit of natural gas as an alternative fuel is its cost, much cheaper than diesel fuel, especially given the recent increase in the state’s gasoline taxes.

With the aim of influencing policymakers, Feinberg has already met with the state’s four gas utilities and others last week to set up a committee to increase the deployment of NGVs throughout the state. The committee includes vehicle and gas manufacturers, fuel-infrastructure providers, and fleet users.

Currently, natural gas only accounts for about 3 percent of fuel (based on energy content) used in the transportation sector. However, there has been greater penetration in private-sector fleets. Natural-gas vehicles currently account for about 35 percent and 55 percent of the transit bus and refuse truck fleets.