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Natural-gas vehicles' slow growth on LI

Trucks refuel at a natural gas refueling station

Trucks refuel at a natural gas refueling station operated by Clean Energy Fuels Corp at 85 Old Northport Road in Kings Park. (Jan. 8, 2014) Credit: Heather Walsh

Natural gas vehicles are a tough sell to Long Island businesses, despite the low cost of their fuel.

Companies here that do use them say they're economical and reliable. At Manhattan Beer Distributors' Wyandanch facility, they swear by their 27 natural-gas-powered delivery trucks. At V. Garofalo & Sons Carting Inc. in Brentwood, they're just as enthusiastic about the 34 natural-gas-powered refuse collection trucks they operate.

But while utilities, governments, schools and bus operators are big users of natural-gas vehicles, they're rarely found at the smaller companies that predominate in the Long Island economy, despite fuel costs that are 25 percent to 30 percent lower than diesel.

The number of natural-gas-powered vehicles in use here is growing, but slowly.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles says that of the more than 2 million vehicles registered on Long Island, only about 760 are powered by natural gas -- a figure that's risen by 20 percent since 2011 and, the department says, includes government vehicles but might not include all of the Island's buses. A 2012 list provided by Greater Long Island Clean Cities Coalition and updated by Newsday indicates there are more than 900 such vehicles in operation here.

Why aren't there more?

Experts place most of the blame on a shortage of refueling stations. There are only 12 open to the public on Long Island and another 12 that are private, the latter including New York Beer's facility in Wyandanch, according to the Clean Cities Coalition, whichtries to assist many of the purchasers with federal or other funding.

Other drawbacks are higher purchase costs for the vehicles and, usually, shorter driving ranges than with diesel or gasoline on fuel tanks of a comparable size.

But natural gas, produced abundantly in North America, is relatively cheap. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that the burning of natural gas produces 20 percent to 45 percent less smog-producing pollutants and 5 percent to 9 percent less greenhouse gas emissions.


Growing support

Federal and state financial aid often is available to businesses to cover some or all the higher purchase price of natural-gas vehicles and to help set up refueling stations, said Rita Ebert, program coordinator for the Clean Cities Coalition.

Most natural-gas vehicles available in this country are trucks and are marketed to fleet purchasers. The one car aimed at the consumer market is a version of the Honda Civic.

At the consulting firm LMC Automotive US Inc. in Troy, Mich., powertrain analyst Kevin Riddell says it expects natural-gas-powered vehicles to account for only about 1 percent of the nation's fleet because of refueling concerns. Sales amount to "a handful a year," he said.

But there are efforts to increase the infrastructure by those who see future growth in the vehicles. Melville-based Northville Industries, historically an oil and gas distributor, set up a subsidiary in 2011 to sell compressed natural gas, the form of the fuel used by vehicles. Northville operates three of the refueling stations now -- all in Indiana -- and is trying to interest Long Island companies with large fleets in setting up their own stations, said company chairman Gene Bernstein.

It's slow going, he said: "So far, none of the ones we talked with were of a mind to go forward with it. In some cases they're just sort of reluctant to change because they've always done it that way." Still, he said, "It looks to us like a very good future for natural gas."

One industry making extensive use of natural-gas vehicles is refuse removal, often at the urging of towns that contract them, which favor the technology for cost savings and eliminating diesel fumes from their streets.

At V. Garofalo & Sons, co-owner Mario Garofalo said he just bought 11 more gas-powered refuse trucks, bringing the number to 34 in his total fleet of 50 trucks. The others are diesels. He got federal grants to help purchase some of the trucks, which, at $300,000, cost about $50,000 more than diesels.

Garofalo fuels his trucks in Kings Park at a station operated by Clean Energy Fuels Corp. of Newport Beach, Calif., but he says wait times there sometimes are problematic. So he's seeking Islip Town approval to build two stations on his 4.5-acre property just south of the Long Island Expressway in Brentwood -- one just for his vehicles and one for the public -- at a total cost of about $1.5 million.

"There are not many fueling stations available on Long Island -- that's the biggest issue," Garofalo said.

Clean Energy's Peter Grace, senior vice president of sales and finance, says it will add two stations this year to the eight it operates on Long Island that are open to the public. It also runs two stations strictly for Nassau County's bus system, which operates about 300 natural-gas transit buses. "We think, as you look out over next few years, you will see more natural-gas fleet vehicles," Grace said.

Garofalo says natural gas, purchased by the therm, costs him the equivalent of about $2.80 per gallon, compared with more than $4 for diesel, representing a big savings even though the gas trucks aren't quite as fuel-efficient as his diesels.

At Rides Unlimited Nassau/Suffolk, a Hauppauge-based company that provides transportation for the disabled, transportation director Rob Quinn said it operates 35 natural-gas shuttle buses and 19 vans, so about 30 percent of the company's total fleet is natural-gas. The rest are gasoline, diesel and hybrid. "If you do a lot of mileage, it will pay for itself," he said. "They have provided for us a core savings on fuel."

Natural-gas power added $24,000 to the cost of the buses, which federal money helped pay for, Quinn said. Typically the vehicles cost $40,000 to $50,000. Rides refuels its vehicles at stations in Hauppauge, Commack and Deer Park, he said, and is building its own station in Islandia.

Manhattan Beer Distributors, which is based in the Bronx, recently replaced 12 more of its diesel delivery trucks serving Long Island with natural-gas models. The new trucks bring to 75 the total it operates, including the 27 based in Wyandanch -- out of a fleet of 350 trucks. The rest are diesels.

Nationwide, about 120,000 natural-gas vehicles are on U.S. roads today, but the technology has been more popular in other countries, and there are about 15 million worldwide, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.


Ford sees demand

Among major carmakers, none offers more natural-gas-powered vehicles in this country than Ford Motor Co. "The reason is because our customers have asked for them," said Ford's fleet sustainability and technology manager Jon Coleman, based in Dearborn, Mich.

The company is offering eight natural-gas-powered trucks for 2014, ranging from the small Transit Connect delivery van to chassis for school buses and recreational vehicles and including the popular F-series pickup trucks. The automaker says it sold about 15,000 gas vehicles in 2013. "We've seen the business effectively doubling every year," said Coleman. Ford builds the trucks on its assembly lines, then ships them to the customer's choice of a Ford-approved vehicle modifier to add fuel tanks, fuel lines and unique fuel injectors, usually for between $6,000 and $8,000.

He says the technology is ideal for vehicles that return to home base for refueling at the end of the day and therefore don't range too far from known fuel sources -- such as intracity transit buses, taxi and limo services, beverage, bread, grocery or package delivery trucks or, catering and refuse-collection trucks.

He argues that, for those businesses, the fuel savings with natural gas exceeds those of gasoline-electric hybrids, and that natural-gas vehicles offer longer range than pure electric vehicles, which rarely can go more than 100 miles between rechargings.

"It's something we're seeing become a larger part of the market out there for vehicles," said Ford's Coleman, "but it's still an emerging technology and still very new. "

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