Western Pennsylvania governments slow to move to natural gas vehicles
By Tom Fontaine
Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Western Pennsylvania sits above one of the world's largest natural gas reserves, but local governments have been slow to tap the resource to power their vehicles despite potential environmental and long-range economic benefits.
Allegheny County last week became the region's first county government to buy natural gas-powered vehicles.
The two bi-fuel pickups — they can run on natural gas or traditional fuel — are now part of the public works department's fleet. The trucks will be used in the Downtown area, where they can remain close to EQT's natural gas fueling station in the Strip District.
“Natural gas vehicles have a number of advantages,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
Among them, Fitzgerald said almost 90 percent of the natural gas used in the United States is produced domestically and it is more environmentally friendly, releasing fewer smog-producing pollutants and greenhouse gases than vehicles that run on gasoline or diesel.
“And natural gas is less expensive than gasoline, which contributes to our bottom line,” Fitzgerald said.
Natural gas typically costs about $1.50 to $2 less per equivalent gallon of gasoline, according to the Washington-based advocacy group NGVAmerica.
The two pickups represent a tiny fraction of the county's 690-vehicle fleet. And despite potential long-term fuel savings, county spokeswoman Amie Downs said each of the pickups cost about $10,000 more than a traditional pickup.
Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties don't own any natural gas vehicles. Their fleets include a combined 677 vehicles. Armstrong County officials did not say how many vehicles are in their fleet, but Public Works Manager Roy Carney said none runs on natural gas.
“It's not that we're opposed to it by any means. We want to be as energy-conscious as we can be,” said Mary Helicke, chief clerk for Washington County.
“The issue for us is refueling or pumping stations. There aren't enough to manage a fleet of 135 vehicles,” Helicke said.
Allegheny County has two public fueling stations — EQT's in the Strip District and one in Crafton that is owned by Giant Eagle. Waste Management Inc. has a public fueling station in Washington.
“We're seeing interest where customers can see an economic advantage and where there is enough infrastructure to support it. Infrastructure is critical,” said Richard Kauling, engineering manager for General Motors' Gaseous Fuel Technical Resource Centre in Ontario, Canada.
Put simply, as Beaver County Chief Clerk Tracey Patton said, “We're not going to drive to the Strip District to fill up our vehicles.”
Aside from counties, the city of Pittsburgh has five natural gas vehicles — including four garbage trucks — in its 1,100-vehicle fleet, said Public Works Director Rob Kaczorowski.
Port Authority of Allegheny County is studying a partial conversion of its fleet of diesel-powered buses. Officials have said the move could save at least $3 million a year, but the conversion's upfront costs could be more than $20 million.
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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