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California Utilities Reaching Out to NatGas Vehicle Operators

California's two principal investor-owned natural gas utilities offered a push to the natural gas vehicle (NGV) sector in separate initiatives Thursday.

In the northern half of the state, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) launched a new $4 million Clean Fuel Rebate program to support more compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles. At the same time Sempra Energy's Los Angeles-based Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) sponsored a webcast with San Joaquin Valley air pollution regulators and heavy duty truck dealers aimed at helping operators of goods-hauling fleets obtain state-funded grants.

As part of a state low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emission levels, PG&E is offering CNG customers at any of its fueling stations the chance to receive clean fuel rebates from the $4 million fund. The San Francisco-based combination utility's Aaron Johnson, vice president for customer energy solutions, said clean fuel vehicles such as NGVs are "a critical part of creating cleaner air" and meeting the state's ambitious climate mitigation goals.

Initial rebates will come this year, and eligible customers will continue to receive them annually through 2020 under the program. Rebates vary depending on an individual customer's consumption of CNG during certain time periods.

"The 2017 rebate will be larger than future ones as it retroactively accounts for customer usage for a period of five years from Jan. 1, 2011 through Sept. 30, 2016," said a PG&E spokesperson.

In May, California released a nearly $100 million 2017-2018 budget to promote alternative fueled vehicle technology advances. NGVs and biofuels are slated to get a portion of the annual allocations, which have totaled nearly $800 million over the past decade.

SoCalGas held a webinar Thursday aimed at truck fleets moving goods through the state's massive San Joaquin Valley and the role their use of cleaner fuels could play in cutting GHG emissions. Converting the trucks to natural gas and other clean fuels is already a statewide initiative and an active program in the Los Angeles/Long Beach ports.

"It's all about clean air," said SoCalGas' Market Account Manager Mike Bolin, who pledged support for goods-hauling fleets that want to seek grants from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) to switch to low-nitrogen oxide (NOx) NGV engines now available for Class 5 through 8 trucks.

Stephanie Hitchman, an SJVAPCD senior air quality specialist, said $140 million already has been given out in grants, resulting in nearly 3,000 NGV trucks being put on the highways, and a number of others being retrofitted. Trucks eligible for the grants must be moving goods for re-sale and must be in compliance with existing emissions requirements. Some 75% of their operations need to be in California, with at least 10% running through the San Joaquin Valley. Ultimately, the grant recipients need to sign five-year, or 500,000-mile, agreements with the SJVAPCD and make annual reports on their fleet operations to the district. Applications for grants are due by July 28 to the SJVAPCD's Fresno office.

Doug Mayes, regional San Joaquin Valley manager for a major Kenworth truck dealer, said the near-zero emission NGV engines will be available in the second or third quarter next year. "Build times for CNG trucks are typically two to three weeks longer than diesel," said Mayes, who represents Pape Kenworth in Bakersfield and throughout the central valley.

The combination of renewable natural gas (RNG) and the new low-NOx engines offers the NGV sector a chance to qualify as near-zero emission vehicles, and government entities, such as the California Air Resources Board are recognizing this new categorization. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (LA Metro) has made the case in two separate reports it commissioned over the past 18 months.

In one of the LA Metro reports, two third-party consulting firms concluded that the use of RNG with low-NOx engines in the transit district buses would reduce NOx and particulate matter (PM) emissions over the next 40 years by 43% and 131%, respectively. That compares reductions of NOx and PM from electric buses of 45%-46% and 51%-52%, respectively, said the consultants, Los Angeles-based Ramboll Environ US Corp. and Concord, MA-based M.J. Bradley & Associates LLC.

LA Metro currently operates 2,194 urban transit buses in fixed-route service throughout the greater Los Angeles area. All of the buses run on CNG, although there is growing pressure to make some of those buses electric vehicles.

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