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State advocates for cleaner fuel

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 6:36 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
The CNG pump at the American Natural Energy Center on E. Carson Street on the South side on Friday December 13, 2013.

Pennsylvania state government is a prosperous partner in natural gas fuel development, doling out millions of dollars to get vehicles running in the emerging market.

The Department of Environmental Protection has two grant programs to help local governments and companies convert their vehicle fleets to run off natural gas: the Alternative Fuel Incentive Grant and the Act 13 Natural Gas Vehicle Program, which started last year. Combined, they've issued more than 60 grants worth $15.6 million since 2009, said Lynda Rebarchak, a spokeswoman for the DEP.

“We're looking to help companies diversify their vehicle fleet, and expanding the use of natural gas that's produced right here in Pennsylvania,” she said. “It's a cleaner burning fuel, and it helps people be able to have an alternative other than using oil from overseas.”

This year, the Act 13 program will offer up to $11 million worth of grants next year for companies that want to buy natural gas vehicles or convert their fleets, with a focus on “heavy duty” vehicles. Eligible companies and governmental authorities could apply to receive up to 50 percent of the cost to purchase or retrofit vehicles, with a maximum of $25,000 per vehicle.

“Between the heavy duty and the lightweight vehicles, we're really trying to open this up to anyone who is interested,” Rebarchak said.

The state's diverting resources toward building corridors of fueling stations for these vehicles to keep their tanks full. In 2013, the Commonwealth Financing Authority gave out more than $7 million to 14 fuel station projects as part of the Alternative and Clean Energy Program. Last January, the CFA began expanding the grant program's regulations to allow natural gas fuel projects.

“The CFA recognized that increasing the number of natural gas filling stations in the state will grow the industry, creating jobs, boosting our economy and resulting in a cleaner environment,” said Lyndsay Frank, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

As of December, Pennsylvania had 27 fueling stations for compressed natural gas, better known as CNG, according to the Department of Energy.

Rick Price, executive director of Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities, advocates for alternative fuel infrastructure and educates companies on the grant process. He said CNG makes economic sense for businesses converting their fleets. A gallon equivalent of CNG costs less than $2, compared to about $3.54 for a gallon of gasoline.

It's a win for the stations, too, Price said — the profit margin on selling CNG is about 40 cents per gallon equivalent, compared with about a nickel per gallon on petroleum-based fuel.

“There's all kinds of technology out there, but natural gas is the best economically right now, not to include the environmental benefits,” he said.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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