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N.H. looks to add more natural gas fueling stations for vehicles

If they build it, who would come? That’s the question facing companies planning to construct new fueling stations for vehicles powered by natural gas.

In New Hampshire, there are only three compressed natural gas fueling stations in operation. Of those, only one, based in Nashua, is open to the general public. But in the next year, the Concord area could see two new natural gas fueling stations as well as one major expansion, all targeted at servicing vehicles like business fleets, delivery trucks or transit buses that run on the alternative energy source.

“We feel strongly that there is a market for it,” said John Shore, spokesman at Liberty Utilities. The company announced plans this month to construct a $4 million complex in Concord that would offer natural gas fueling to business fleet vehicles. Once the station is built and word spreads, Shore said, it will drive the purchase or conversion to natural gas vehicles.

“There aren’t a lot of those vehicles around right now, we think because there’s not a lot of places to fuel them up,” he said. “It’s a chicken or egg scenario we’re trying to solve.”

Currently, 78 natural gas vehicles are in use across the state, according to a 2013 report from the Department of Environmental Services.

“It’s probably more than double from five years ago,” said Rebecca Ohler, state transportation and energy programs manager. “It’s actually a huge increase.”

Nationwide, natural gas powers roughly 112,000 vehicles, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, a small portion of the estimated 14.8 million natural gas vehicles worldwide.

The vehicles powered by the fuel tend to burn cleaner and exceed energy standards, Ohler said. And a major benefit is the cost of filling up. Right now, prices for the compressed natural gas fuel run about $2.49 per gasoline gallon equivalent, roughly a dollar less than current gas pump prices.

But the up-front cost of the vehicles is high. Medium-sized vehicles powered by natural gas, such as delivery trucks or transit shuttles, can cost between $15,000 and $20,000 more than comparable gasoline models, according to estimates by the National Fuel Gas Distribution Corporation. That difference jumps to $25,000 for heavy-duty vehicles, such as garbage trucks and school busses.

“It is coming down . . . but there is a sizable up-front investment to make that purchase,” especially for bigger trucks, Ohler said. “It has to make business sense for somebody to do it.”

There also have to be fueling options. In New Hampshire, the three operational natural gas fueling stations are all located in the southern part of the state, Ohler said. The newest one opened in Nashua in October 2011. The only station currently accessible to the public, it has allowed the city of Nashua to replace many of the heavy-duty, gasoline-fueled vehicles in its fleet – such as garbage trucks – with natural gas powered alternatives, Ohler said. “They are finding huge cost savings.”

Another station based at the University of New Hampshire is private, only open for use by university or government vehicles, Ohler said. The third, located on Stickney Avenue in Concord, is a single pump owned by the state and used solely by state vehicles.

But that could change soon, Ohler said, and it is one of the three development plans that aim to increase natural gas fuel accessibility in the Concord area.

The state is planning to bring in a private operator to run the station and to open it up to the public, Ohler said. Within the next two months, the state hopes to put out a request for proposals and once it negotiates an agreement, the station should see a quick turnaround since it’s already functional, Ohler said.

Additionally, two brand new stations are scheduled to open in Concord and Pembroke within the year. Although the majority of business for each station will be based around creating a “virtual pipeline” to deliver natural gas to companies across the state that don’t have access to the fuel, both complexes will also be equipped with compressed natural gas fueling stations.

Similar to the setup of a gas station, the Pembroke-based fueling station will be accessible to the public. It is scheduled to open this spring and will be owned and operated by California-based Clean Energy Fuels, said company spokesman Patric Rayburn. The business already has about 500 similar fueling stations across the country, but it is the company’s first complex that will operate with the dual purpose of vehicle fueling and filling trucks to deliver compressed natural gas to companies.

For the latter purpose, Clean Energy Fuels has an exclusive contract with Vermont-based NG Advantage, which delivers natural gas to businesses across New Hampshire and southern Vermont.

The vehicle fueling station will help add to a growing interest in the alternative fuel, Shore said.

“Having increased infrastructure does bode well for fleets in the area that are already operating on natural gas or that just want to move in that direction,” he said.

Next door in Concord, Liberty Utilities announced this month that it plans to construct a similar complex at its existing Broken Bridge Road site.

The company still has to pass through a permitting process with the PUC and the city, Shore said, but has plans to open in late fall or early winter.

Liberty Utilities will own and operate the natural gas compressor station, but has a contract with Advanced Vehicle Service Group LP to run the vehicle fueling station part of the complex. It’s the same company that operates the station in Nashua. But this facility will be private, open only to company fleet vehicles that have a prior agreement, said Michael Manning, Vice President of Business Development for innovative Natural Gas LLC, that will operate the “virtual pipeline” portion of the complex.

Public access could be a possibility in the future, Shore said, if the demand is high enough.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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