Tackling high gas prices with compressed natural gas in South Jersey

As gas prices creep toward $4 a gallon, the push for alternative fuel sources got a boost this month when the region’s latest compressed natural gas filling station opened in Glassboro.

The new facility, built by South Jersey Gas on the company’s Divisional Operations center on Main Street, becomes one of 28 such stations statewide and one of only eight to offer the alternative fuel service to the general public.

With plans to open several more stations in the region, South Jersey Gas is hoping to spur the use of natural gas as a cheaper, environmentally safer alternative to traditional gasoline.

“We’re at the beginning stages of building a compressed natural gas fueling structure,” said Todd Gordon, manager of commercial and industrial sales for the company. “Once the network is in place you’ll see the market begin to mature from fleet vehicles to day-to-day passenger cars.”

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Lauded as a U.S. produced alternative to foreign oil, natural gas fuels an estimated 175,000 vehicles nationwide, according to Clean Vehicle Solutions, a New Brunswick company that leads the nation in converting vehicles to natural gas use. There are 1,400 natural gas vehicles on New Jersey roads, most of them trucks, buses and vans in government and commercial fleets, said Michael Misseri, who heads the company.

As it begins promoting the alternative fuel through its station network, South Jersey Gas is focusing its efforts first on counties, municipalities and businesses in the region.

“There are more than 30 municipalities who are interested in pursuing natural gas vehicles,” Gordon said. “They’ll be able to contact us for access to our stations.”

Among them is the borough of Glassboro, which currently uses three natural gas-fueled vehicles – two pickup trucks and a car – and is planning to add more.

“Right now, refilling them is one of the obstacles we’re having,” said Joseph Brigandi, Jr. borough administrator.

The borough has its own “slow filling” station which requires the vehicles to dock overnight to be refueled. The South Jersey Gas station would be a “quick fill” type, much like traditional gas stations.

“This new station is a great opportunity for us to convert as much of our fleet as possible to natural gas,” Brigandi said.

Also interested in SJG’s new station is Rowan University, which is considering the purchase and conversion of two shuttle buses to run between the school’s campuses in Glassboro and Camden.

“We’ve not made a firm commitment to doing it but we’re actively exploring our options,” said Michael Harris, vice president of facilities and operations for the university. “The cost of the fuel on an ongoing basis is significantly lower than traditional fuel. We just have to look at the cost of obtaining the vehicles.”

At this point the cost of converting the vehicles, which averages about $13,000 to $40,000 per vehicle, is a “major stumbling block” for those looking to take advantage of alternative fuel, said Heather Simmons, Gloucester County freeholder.

But while a bill to provide tax incentives for natural gas vehicles was defeated in Congress recently, grant money is available to offset costs, she pointed out.

The county is also exploring other ways to make switching to natural gas vehicles financially feasible for its towns, she said. One way may be to lease the vehicles from private companies who can take advantage of tax credits to offset conversion prices, she said.

“There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” Simmons said. “This is a discussion that is not going away, especially as gas prices continue to rise. We have to look at alternatives for our energy.”

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