May 21–PITTSTON TWP. — The fueling station that Ross Finlan helped bring to Pittston Twp. is the only place the public can buy compressed natural gas, or CNG, for their vehicles in Luzerne County.
That will change when the Luzerne County Transportation Authority offers the fuel to the public. A partnership between the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Trillium Transportation Fuels LLC will see CNG stations at 29 transit stations across the state. Trillium will build and operate the stations.
Some of the stations will be open to the public, including LCTA’s. The construction of that public station is delayed while the LCTA considers building a new facility in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
Although the company Finlan works for — U.S. Gain — isn’t involved in the LCTA project, he said it will be good for the entire industry.
“We’re all kind of in this together,” said Finlan, the business development manager for U.S. Gain. “Maybe you’re bidding against each other, but at the same time every site that opens is really good for the industry.”
When U.S. Gain sets up a compressed natural gas fueling station, it contracts with an anchor tenant before building so it has a reliable customer. More fueling stations mean the infrastructure is in place to support more potential customers.
The U.S. Gain site in Pittston Twp. and a public station at LT Verrastro in Scranton will be joined by stations at LCTA’s new headquarters and at the headquarters for the County of Lackawanna Transit System.
Although anyone is allowed to use the stations, future customers will probably be those with fleets of vehicles.
The vehicles can be hard to find in the Wyoming Valley.
For example, MotorWorld, in Plains Township and Wilkes-Barre, doesn’t sell any vehicles that use the fuel.
“I’m not even sure if it’s an option,” said President Rick Osick. “Many of the manufacturers offer the natural gas trucks, like step vans, transit buses, school buses. They’re the kind of vehicles that right now (are) using that type of technology and we don’t sell that product.”
The Wilkes-Barre Truck Center also doesn’t carry CNG vehicles now. It’s been about three or four years since the center sold a vehicle that runs on natural gas, said Service Manager Adam Miller.
“I think (gasoline prices) would have to take the sharp upward turn they’ve taken in the past,” he said. “Another $2 jump to where it was affecting everybody’s bottom line instantly, as opposed to something they could adjust for over time. I think they’d be willing to do anything they could to save money.”
Nevertheless, some CNG vehicles are traveling on the streets of Northeast Pennsylvania now.
For example, Pennsylvania American Water has 35 vehicles across the state that use the fuel, including more than two dozen in Scranton, said spokeswoman Susan Turcmanovich. They fill up at the U.S. Gain station in Pittston Twp.
More fueling stations could help the fleet by expanding its range.
When the company first bought the trucks, it shipped them to a facility in Harrisburg, and filled them up at a fueling station in York en route to Northeast Pennsylvania.
“There was nothing else for fuel until we got them up here,” said supervisor Mark Baloh.
Right now, he sends CNG vehicles from the garage in Scranton to the southern part of the his service area because they can stop at the fueling station in Pittston Twp. as they travel on Interstate 81. It takes a truck about five minutes to fill up, then it’s back on the road.
The vehicles carry employees in a cabin and gear in a truck bed, just like the vehicles that use diesel. In between that cabin and truck bed, however, is a large metal box. It holds the tanks that carry CNG.
In Scranton, about half of the fleet that work crews use run on natural gas. At other Pennsylvania American Water sites, CNG vehicles are a smaller portion of the work fleet, Turcmanovich said.
The company received grants from the state Department of Environmental Protection to fund purchases, and its still evaluating how much money it has saved, she said.
“That wasn’t a driver (of the acquisition),” she said. “It lowers our carbon footprint.”
Savings at the fueling station are lower at the moment than when the average diesel price in the United States was above $3.75 for the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline. That last happened in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Since then, diesel prices have dropped. There was even a time in 2016 when diesel fuel was cheaper than CNG.
Right now, buyers in the Department of Energy’s Central Atlantic region, which includes Pennsylvania, will pay $0.15 more to fill up on diesel than an equivalent amount of CNG, which cost $2.49, according to an April report from the Department of Energy.
That makes it difficult at the moment to offset the premium it costs to buy a CNG vehicle in the first place, said Larry Catanzaro, the senior director of transportation at Kane Is Able trucking company.
“To give you an idea, you can buy a regular day cab (truck) for maybe $125,000. For a CNG truck, you’re adding at least $50,000 on to it,” he said.
The company received grants of $25,000 per truck to help pay for the initial purchase of seven vehicles approximately three or four years ago. That’s about seven percent of its total fleet.
Back then, they would go up to Kingston, New York, to fill up. There was no local place to get fuel. Now, they fill up at Procter & Gamble’s Mehoopany facility, LT Verrastro in Scranton or U.S. Gain in Pittston Twp.
“Any infrastructure they add, any fueling stations they add certainly helps, because they’re all kind of en route to where you’re going and where we service. And even though we’re short haul and the trucks are at a premium, we think it’s the right thing to do for the environment. We think there are other applications for that type of technology,” Catanzaro said, such as smaller trucks that move semi-trailers within a shipping facility.
His company might expand its CNG fleet in the future.
“It depends on that premium,” he said.
A local fuel
Pennsylvania has a lot of natural gas.
Reserves from the Marcellus Shale formation give the state the second highest amount of proven reserves, which is gas that is recoverable under existing economic conditions and with existing technology. Only Texas has more.
State government has encouraged natural gas as a vehicle fuel. PennDOT’s partnership with Trillium Transportation Fuels to develop public transit fleets that run on natural gas is one example.
The Department of Environmental Protection also established a program, called the Natural Gas Energy Development Program, to promote the gas as a vehicle fuel. Since 2013, the department has awarded $20 million in natural gas vehicle grants, according to its website.
Help from governments is something that Craig Rindt, a researcher at the University of California-Irvine, sees in emerging alternative fuels.
“The idea behind these things is essentially to allow an alternative fuel to compete in the marketplace, to get to a point where it can compete in the marketplace on the merits of the fuels itself, so it can get in the market and find whatever niches it’s best matched for,” he said.
The fuel has its opponents. Anti-drilling advocates say the process of extracting natural gas contaminates drinking water and causes other problems.
And whether using the gas actually sends less carbon into the atmosphere during its entire fuel cycle — from extraction, to transportation, to end user — is also an open question. Researchers look at the entire process of using the fuel, from extraction to burning, including leaks in moving the gas.
“If that gets high, all the advantages during combustion may disappear,” Rindt said.
There have been success stories for the fuel, and researchers and engineers continue to try to improve the technology that uses natural gas. The fuel’s long-term future will depend on how it finds successful niches and how it compares to other available fuels.
“It’s difficult to peer into the future and pick a winner, which again is why I think you look at these programs as trying to level the playing field and the marketplace so that the technologies themselves can find, through the market, the areas where they’re most successful,” Rindt said. “So natural gas certainly appears to have a future. There are certainly industries that are pretty excited about it and what it can offer.”
With the amount of natural gas underground in Pennsylvania, the state government’s efforts to promote it and enough buyers who see a future, the fuel is likely to be part of the state’s energy landscape for years to come.
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There are three types of natural gas vehicles, according to the U.S. Department of Energy:
–Dedicated vehicles: These run only on natural gas.
–Bi-fuel: Vehicles with two separate fuel systems. They can run on either natural gas or gasoline.
–Dual fuel: These vehicles have fuel systems that run on natural gas, and use diesel fuel for ignition assistance. They are traditionally limited to heavy-duty applications, such as large trucks.
There are nearly 1,000 public natural fueling stations in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Visit afdc.energy.gov/fuels/natural_gas_locations.html to view an online map of natural gas fueling stations, including those in Northeast Pennsylvania.
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