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Oct 29, 2013 Transportation & Infrastructure

Prospects for Natural Gas in the Pittsburgh Region

A key initiative of the Power of 32 is to maximize the transition to alternative fuels for all forms of transportation, prioritizing fleet vehicles and river tugs. So, we were interested in the findings of a recent study by engineering and public policy students at CMU, "What are the Prospects for Natural Gas in the Pittsburgh Region?"

According to Deborah Stine, Ph.D., Professor of the Practice, Engineering and Public Policy Department and Associate Director for Policy Outreach, Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at CMU the overall goal of the study was to determine which types of vehicle conversions to natural gas make the most sense in Pittsburgh?

This project investigated the potential for replacing liquid petroleum-based transportation fuels with natural gas in the Pittsburgh region. The vehicles examined were light-duty cars for personal use, taxis, tug and towboats, trains, tractor-trailer trucks, school buses, and transit buses.  The analysis included determining the break-even point for switching an existing vehicle type so it could use natural gas as a fuel; developing supply curves to prioritize the conversion of fleets of vehicles considering economic, energy security and environmental benefits to Pittsburgh; and analyzing existing and potential policies.

What were the key findings?

The two major findings are that tug and towboats make the most sense for conversion to natural gas when looking at overall societal benefits, and passenger vehicles make the least sense. "Although a lot of effort on the national and local level to encourage the use of natural gas in a passenger vehicles," notes Stine, "it really depends on how many miles you drive. So, conversion makes sense for taxis rather than passenger cars used for commuting to and from work."

Another key finding shows that there is a "chicken and egg" issue related to infrastructure. "When you look at where to invest your dollars," says Stine, "investing in infrastructure probably makes more sense than investing in vehicles. No one is going to buy a vehicle (even it makes sense on a dollar per gallon basis) if there is no way to get their fuel source."

According to Stine, the study indicated that tractor-trailer trucks make a lot of economic sense also. Organizations like Giant Eagle have been switching over to natural gas trucks, leveraging their own fueling stations. However if you are a truck that goes across interstate lines and is dependent on fueling stations, you are going to run out fuel at some point. As a result, some states are proposing to develop natural gas vehicle corridors along turnpikes and interstate highways that trucks travel to facilitate adoption.

In fact, in September, IGS Energy opened its first compressed natural gas fueling station in Bridgeport, WV, as part of a plan to offer the alternative fuel along the I-79 corridor between west central West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania.

You can view the study findings on the Engineering and Public Policy Department website. The next steps for Stine and others are to translate the study findings for policy makers and to publish a formal peer-reviewed journal article.