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More companies turning to alternative fuel to power fleets

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Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

Zoresco Equipment Co.'s longtime business has been outfitting trucks for tasks ranging from utility line work to hauling horses.

But the Turtle Creek company has put more time in recent years into switching customers' fleet trucks from gasoline-only to “bifuel” vehicles that run on less expensive compressed natural gas (CNG) as well as traditional fuels, or sometimes to natural gas only.

The business “has been very big,” said Buzz Tabone, vice president of sales. Zoresco converted 10 trucks in 2010, about 110 the next year and 180 in 2012.

“We expect to grow our business on the CNG side somewhere between 30 and 50 percent again in 2013,” he said. Conversions, which range in cost from $10,000 to $16,000, are done mainly in Turtle Creek, and at Zoresco locations in Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Zoresco hired four technicians at its local center to focus on its alternative-fuel work — and as they turn out more vehicles that burn cheaper, lower-emission natural gas, the industry's producers and utilities, plus filling-station operators and automakers are ramping up efforts to make natural gas a common transportation fuel.

About 110,000 fleet trucks, buses and cars run on natural gas now in the United States, a sliver of the 14 million in use worldwide, advocacy group Natural Gas Vehicles for America said. But the International Association of Natural Gas Vehicles estimates that in the next decade the sector should grow to more than 65 million around the globe, or 9 percent of all transportation fleets.

In Western Pennsylvania, natural gas vehicle use “is going to really expand” with better infrastructure and renewals of tax incentives and rebates, said Rick Price, executive director of Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities, which promotes alternative fuel use.

For example, Giant Eagle Inc. of O'Hara plans to put natural gas filling stations into two GetGo convenience store locations, in Cranberry and Waynesburg, Price said. The grocery chain runs a station open for public use near its Crafton warehouse.

Giant Eagle spokesman Dick Roberts said plans for natural gas facilities at GetGo and other locations still are to be determined.

American Natural Inc. of New York plans to lease and expand a gas station near Station Square on the South Side for a combination of gasoline and natural gas fueling. And Ohio-based IGS Energy will build compressed natural gas stations in Mount Morris, Greene County, and in Charleston, Bridgeport and Jane Lew, W.Va., in 2013 as part of a $10 million network along Interstate 79.

At Mount Morris, a standalone fueling facility that sources gas from local utility pipelines will be built alongside an existing gas station and truck stop, said T.J. Meadows, the company's West Virginia business manager. That station will open by yearend.

Natural gas producers Chesapeake Energy, EQT Corp. and Antero Resources have committed to fuel their vehicles along the so-called CNG Fueling Corridor, Meadows said, and IGS Energy will seek other fleet customers. Fleet customers can save 30 to 50 percent on fuel costs a year by using natural gas, he said.

“They will be open to the public. Anyone can use them,” Meadows said. The stations won't be staffed, so customers will have to use credit or debit cards to pay.

EQT, which is Zoresco's biggest customer for conversions, has aggressively moved its fleet to natural gas use.

“We're planning to operate 14 percent of our vehicle fleet, or more than 200 vehicles, on natural gas by the end of 2013,” EQT spokeswoman Linda Robertson said. Downtown-based EQT also converted two of its drilling rigs to run on natural gas in 2012 and is about to switch over a third rig. The company also operates a filling station in the Strip District.

Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania will add two bifuel trucks to its fleet this year, and Peoples Natural Gas Co. is looking to add to its natural gas-burning fleet while also promoting the fuel's use.

A Johnstown-area business in August arranged to use Peoples' private refueling station there to try out a natural gas-burning heavy duty truck. “It was a successful pilot,” said Lutitia Clipper, natural gas vehicle specialist for the North Shore-based utility, adding the customer is pursuing grants to add natural gas trucks.

Peoples isn't interested in operating public stations for refueling, she said, but its eight stations in the region could be used for similar tryouts by companies interested in the fuel, but wary about investing up to $1 million for a filling station.

“Our job is to make the natural gas available, and to do what is necessary to build the infrastructure” by promoting the fuel's use, said Clipper, who drives a Honda Civic that runs on compressed natural gas and recently paid $8.50 for fuel for a drive to State College.

General Motors, Ford and other automakers are turning more attention to natural gas, and Chrysler is the first to bring to market a Dodge Ram 2500 series truck that rolls out of the factory ready to use compressed natural gas along with gasoline.

The specially engineered vehicle is big enough to contain a Class 1 CNG tank with submarine-quality steel, and has heavy duty axles to support the equipment, said Bob Johnson, regional account executive for Chrysler Fleet. The truck is designed to use the natural gas supply, then switch to gasoline if needed. In colder weather, it starts on gasoline and then burns natural gas.

The wholesale price for the vehicle's CNG option is $9,300, not including incentives. And while the truck was introduced in the spring strictly for fleet orders, “recently, Chrysler opened up ordering for the general public,” he said.

“It was expensive to bring this truck to market, but the infrastructure for CNG is really coming along,” Johnson said. “Chrysler believes the future in alternate-fuel vehicles is probably CNG,” and more natural gas models likely will be introduced.

Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or kleonard@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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