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Natural Gas Transportation Push Continues in California

As one of two indicators that natural gas for transportation is still alive and well in California despite a ballot measure defeat last month, T. Boone Pickens' gas-powered transportation company, Clean Energy Fuels Corp., said last Monday it has won a 10-year contract with the City of Glendale, CA, to build and operate a new large-scale public access compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling facility to support the city's expanding CNG-powered vehicle fleets. The following day Sempra Energy and local officials kicked off a switch to CNG-powered cargo trucks in Southern California's two teeming ports.

The first of what proponents hope will be thousands of clean-fueled, heavy-duty cargo-toting trucks arrived at the combined Long Beach and Los Angeles Ports last Tuesday, beginning a 12-month demonstration of CNG-fueled transport of containers off-loaded from ships in the nation's busiest port facility. Sempra, regional air pollution regulators and the two ports are collaborating in the effort to replace diesel-powered transport.

Sempra's Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) said the study will use four heavy-duty CNG trucks to move containers from the San Pedro Bay ports to nearby freight-consolidation yards. Each CNG truck engine (Cummins Westport ISL G) is certified to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stringent 2010 on-road emission standards, SoCalGas said. Autocar is the manufacturer of the trucks.

Separately, just before Thanksgiving, Seal Beach, CA-based Clean Energy announced that it started regular operations at its liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant at Boron, CA, the largest LNG production plant in the Southwest producing vehicle-grade fuel and the first large-scale plant in California. At that time the company also said its compressed natural gas (CNG) business was expanding throughout the Southwest.

In Glendale, Clean Energy said the new CNG fueling facility will be designed to serve what it called "a range of light-, medium- and heavy-duty vehicles," including public transit buses, municipal vehicles, refuse hauling trucks, taxis, shared-ride shuttle buses and passenger cars.

Located near Bob Hope Airport, the Glendale station will serve more than 30 Beeline Transit buses and a growing fleet of residential refuse trucks operated by the city, said Clean Energy, calling the location "strategic" for taxis operating in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles and shuttling passengers over the 20-mile distance between the airport and downtown Los Angeles.

Glendale said that when it completes an ongoing program to replace all of its diesel-powered fleet vehicles with CNG-powered ones, the new station is expected to dispense more than 800,000 gallons of fuel annually.

Noting that Glendale has for many years been committed to using CNG in its fleets, Clean Energy Senior Vice President James Harger said that city's level of commitment "continues to expand." Harger said the diesel vehicle replacement over the next five years is further evidence of this commitment.

The ongoing effort, Harger said, will "contribute significantly to boosting local efforts to curtail air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions."

Oil billionaire Pickens, who has been pushing a national initiative for using more renewable energy sources to generate electricity and diverting more natural gas to transportation, put millions of dollars into promoting California's Proposition 10, which sought to create $5 billion in state bonds to boost the use of natural gas in vehicles at a cost of nearly $10 billion over 30 years. But more than 60% of the state's voters rejected the idea.

Some financial news media speculated that if the ballot measure failed, Pickens and other backers would face a tougher sell with governmental authorities regarding the wisdom of investing in infrastructure for natural gas-fueled vehicles, compared with spending the same money on biofuels or electric cars and trucks. So far Clean Energy is not slowing down its push for natural gas use in vehicles, particularly large fleet and heavy-duty vehicles.

In the SoCalGas port program, Following the 12-month demonstration, the utility hopes to switch the CNG drayage trucks to a mixture of CNG/hydrogen, a blend the utility said is widely regarded as a "gateway" to the wider use of hydrogen as a transportation fuel. The use of hydrogen with CNG has been shown to reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from CNG vehicles by an added 30-50%, the utility said.

"The trucks are expected to reduce NOx emissions -- a precursor to smog -- by 80%, compared with the cleanest diesel truck," a gas utility spokesperson said.

In addition to SoCalGas, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), and the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have combined to try to clean up the region's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

About two-thirds of the 15 million container units coming into the ports each year are moved by truck within a 25-mile radius of the docks. The utility, ports and AQMD committed Oct. 1 to work with trucking companies and other stakeholders to launch a Clean Trucks Program at the adjacent ports.

SoCalGas said port officials have called this "the most ambitious anti-pollution plan" ever developed for a global seaport. The CNG trucks used in the demonstration cost $1.7 million overall, with the Sempra gas utility contributing $1.1 million, each port giving $112,000, and the AQMD adding $421,000.

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