WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - The River Valley Transit's spiffy new compressed natural gas filling station here is the latest link in a growing CNG network aimed at fleets of large, fuel-hungry vehicles.
"We think this is going to be a winner," said Kevin W. Kilpatrick, the planning manager for the transit agency, which already owns one CNG bus, has four more on order, and aspires to convert its entire 29-bus fleet to natural gas within a decade. River Valley is the mass-transit company for Williamsport and Lycoming County.
The new station, which will also sell fuel for $1.99 a gallon to the public once a credit-card reading device is installed, is expected to find an instant market among businesses eager to promote natural gas in this thriving hub for the Marcellus Shale gas industry.
The station joins a network of 632 public refueling outlets nationwide, according to U.S. Department of Energy. The department's Alternative Fuels Data Center lists 27 stations in Pennsylvania, seven in New Jersey, and one in Delaware.
In the Philadelphia area, 12 public CNG stations are now open. Peco Energy Co. says the 10 stations it supplies with gas - including five it owns - sell the equivalent of about 50,000 gallons of fuel a month, up from 500 gallons just two years ago.
The CNG fueling infrastructure needs a dramatic expansion before natural gas begins to rival gasoline and diesel as a motor fuel, experts say.
Natural gas is expected to capture no more than 0.43 percent of the market for light-duty vehicles by 2023, according to a study by Navigant Research in Chicago released last month. Light-duty vehicles include passenger cars and most pickup trucks.
Natural gas vehicles (NGVs) are projected to capture up to 3.8 percent of the bigger-truck market, where a buyer can more quickly recover the higher vehicle cost through fuel that costs about half as much as diesel.
The study, commissioned by the National Association of Convenience Stores Fuels Institute, said the high cost of building CNG stations was a major factor inhibiting broad adoption of the vehicles.
Gov. Corbett's administration has thrown its support behind NGVs, said Patrick Henderson, the state's energy executive.
The Commonwealth Financing Authority will contribute up to half the cost for CNG or liquefied natural gas fuel station projects in grants and loans. It recently announced $2 million in grants for five stations, including a Sunoco outlet at the Pennsylvania Turnpike King of Prussia Service Plaza.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has dedicated $20 million from the Marcellus Shale impact fee to subsidize vehicle purchases. So far, it has awarded $6.6 million toward the purchase or conversion of 329 heavy-duty natural gas trucks.
The River Valley Transit agency built its CNG project by assembling a package of federal and state grants that covered all but $100,000 of the project's $6.5 million cost. The total cost includes $2 million for four new natural gas buses, $1.5 million to improve its maintenance facility, and $3 million for the three-dispenser fuel station.
"Kind of a great deal for us, eh?" said Kilpatrick, the planning manager.
The transit agency draws its fuel from the local utility, UGI Penn Natural Gas. The gas is dehydrated, compressed under high pressure, and stored in six heavy steel cylindrical tanks until a vehicle arrives at the pumps. The fuel flows at the equivalent rate of about 10 gallons a minute.
The new fueling station comes not a day too soon for the local owner of one natural gas vehicle.
Gus Genetti, owner of the historic Genetti Hotel in downtown Williamsport, bought a CNG van last year to transport customers from the airport. He wanted to promote the shale gas industry, which has kept his hotel filled with customers since the Marcellus boom started in 2008.
"This area has benefited greatly from that natural gas field, and Mr. Genetti wanted to support the industry and put his money where his mouth is," said Marc Schefsky, the hotel's general manager.
The hotel typically refueled its vehicle at a slow-fill dispenser at a local college, which required about eight hours. The next closest option was 63 miles away in Centre County.
"A couple of times, we had to trailer the van to State College for fuel," Schefsky said. Now a quick fill-up is just minutes away.
BY THE NUMBERS
price per gallon the new station will eventually charge for fuel.
Public refueling stations currently in a national network of outlets.
Refueling stations in Pennsylvania. This compares with seven in New Jersey and one in Delaware.