BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
One among the first wave of transfer stations for compressed natural gas in the United States may be located at Orangetown’s Highway Department facility off Route 303 in Orangeburg, if plans submitted by the private operator of the facility are approved by the Town Board. If the station is approved and everything goes according to plan, the town could save at least $100,000 per year on fuel and maintenance costs, officials said.
The firm, Mobile Fueling Solutions, is already headquartered nearby, at the Bradley Industrial Park in Blauvelt. That building only houses their administrative offices, however, and no liquid, gasified or compressed gas is actually stored there.
Chief Executive Officer Dean Sloane and Chief Operating Officer Luis Pereira outlined their company’s interest in Orangetown at a workshop meeting of the five-member Town Council last week, and appeared to meet with an enthusiastic if somewhat cautious reaction from the five-man board.
Councilmen expressed a lack of knowledge about such an operation, and wondered aloud what its impact might be if it were to indeed locate in Orangetown. Among other factors, they were curious about the plant’s potential economic, financial, employment, traffic and environmental impacts.
Highway Superintendent James Dean said his department currently uses about 73,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually, under a state contract, while the whole town government uses about 100,000 gallons. The fuel costs the town about $3.25 per gallon, or about $325,000 each year. Using CNG could potentially save the town $100,000 annually or more, experts said, just in the cost of the fuel itself.
CNG engines are much cleaner and more efficient, and only require maintenance such as oil changes about every 10,000 to 20,000 miles, instead of the 3,000 miles on current gasoline models. The savings on operation and maintenance could double savings, Dean added, and would make it eminently feasible to start buying CNG vehicles as replacements for current trucks as they are fazed out of service because of age and condition.
Town officials said they would ponder the request from Mobile Fueling Solutions, check with the town attorney’s office on the legalities of leasing town space to a private firm, and other aspects of the proposal before making a decision.
Sloane and Pereira said commercial vehicles around the world are switching from gasoline and diesel-powered engines to compressed natural gas, or CNG, as quickly as they can because it burns much cleaner and costs a fraction of the cost of normal fuels.
In Europe, Asia and South America such conversions are commonplace and expanding rapidly, the two entrepreneurs told the board, with a company called Galileo leading the way in the Americas with an almost total conversion of vehicle fuels from gas to CNG in Venezuela.
The process is virtually unknown in the United States, however, because of the expense of converting vehicle engines to burn CNG and the lack of filling stations capable of storing and pumping the new fuel into the vehicles, once they are converted. Relatively few gasoline pumps even handle diesel fuel for trucks today, 50 years after it became the standard commercial fuel, the speakers noted.
Citing the ancient proverb of the chicken and the egg, they said CNG has a similar quandary: do the stations convert first and wait for the trucks to follow or do the trucks convert first and wait for the fueling stations to catch up?
To speed the process in America, where only a handful of compressed natural gas transfer stations exist, Sloane and Pereira said they have come up with a solution that satisfies everyone, and all at the same time.
They will build a manufacturing plant somewhere in the US that will convert natural gas into compressed natural gas, or CNG; or purchase it from an existing such facility. In either case, the manufacturing plant will not be located in Orangetown.
Instead, they will create a fleet of large flatbed tractor-trailer trucks and have the gas shipped to a transfer station they will construct at Orangetown’s Highway Garage complex. The gas will be stored in huge metal pods on the trucks, and transferred at the Highway location to smaller pods. Those pods, in turn, will be driven on smaller trucks to gasoline filling stations throughout the New York Metropolitan area, where they will be unloaded and left and used by the stations to fill the trucks, buses and other commercial vehicles with the needed CNG gas as fuel.
This will save the station owners from having to dig huge holes to bury the new tanks underground, as current gasoline and diesel tanks are, and the drivers can fill their vehicles directly from the dropped-off pods.
CNG gas costs at least one-third less than gasoline or diesel fuel, Sloane and Pereira claimed, and should thus be so attractive to fleet operators that they will start converting their trucks, buses and other vehicles as quickly as possible to accommodate the newer and cheaper fuel.
Not only do the station owners make more money by handling CNG but they also save by not having to own the tanks in which the gas is stored. When a pod on the ground at a station is running low, Mobile Fueling Solutions merely drives from Orangetown to the station and replaces the pod will a new full one, and hauls the empty pod back to the transfer station to be refueled for another customer.
Asked for the advantage for the vehicle operators, the men said a CNG engine in a new truck originally cost about $35,000 more than a standard gasoline or diesel version, but that fee has now been reduced to $25,000 and continues to drop annually. Within the next year or two, they said fleet operators should be able to buy replacement vehicles for only about $15,000 more than standard models, and this cost can be more than made up within the first year or two of operations by the savings in fuel costs.
Fleet operators they said would probably be the first to join the rush to CNG would be those whose vehicles run on regular routes, with the same starting and ending points, such as school, municipal and private bus companies and municipal departments of public works with heavy duty trucks such as snow plows and dump trucks.
Long distance truckers would probably wait to convert to CNG because of their initial fear of not being able to find a CNG station in an unfamiliar part of the country when they run low. As similar operations to Mobile Fueling Solutions open up across the United States, however, they said the long-distance trucking firms would probably then be eager to join.
The new fuel depot would be in a very commercial area of Orangetown just east of Route 303. Originally farmland, it was taken over by the US Army in World War II for the construction of warehouses for Camp Shanks.
Another portion of the site became the Route 303 Drive-In Theater, which is now owned and operated by Organic Recycling, Inc., and the Town of Orangetown. Adjacent properties along Route 303 are all commercial, consisting of factories, warehouses, offices, restaurants, small strip malls, a lumberyard and similar businesses.
Within the highway complex, the company would like to locate its transfer depot at what is now the drop-off location where residents can bring their leaves, branches and other debris. The town loads the debris into trailers or trucks and hauls them to transfer stations in West Nyack, Hillburn and other locations.
Dean said he is agreeable to leasing the site to Mobile Fueling Solutions, and would simply move the drop off site to another part of the property.
In return for hosting the transfer station, Orangetown would be given a preferable price on CNG once its trucks are converted to that type of engine. The switch would save Orangetown tens of thousands of dollars a year, Dean said, because its large fleet of trucks consumes thousands of gallons of fuel annually.
Sloane and Pereira said they had made an exhaustive study of the New York metropolitan region before deciding on Orangetown’s highway property as the ideal site for their new transfer station.
There are hundreds of trucking, busing and other commercial firms within a 50-mile radius of the site, they said, ranging from a dozen school bus operators to Red & Tan, Brega, Coach USA, numerous municipal trucking operations and private trucking firms and even Orange and Rockland Utilities, which they said operates a fleet of 1,600 vehicles and is eager to start converting to CNG fuel once a source can be found.
Councilman Thomas Diviny questioned how many trucks would use the 303 site on a daily basis, fearing congestion at the location. The company executives explained that essentially no additional trucks would use 303 to reach the transfer station, because no customers fuel up there, and the company itself would only send out deliveries approximately twice a week, meaning two additional trucks over the current usage.
Councilman Paul Valentine wondered about the safety of CNG stored at the site, and was told it is “far safer” than gasoline or diesel which can easily explode. CNG cannot explode, they claimed, unless it is purposely bombed. There has never been a single explosion involving CNG in the 40 years it has existed in the United States, the owners added.
Councilman Thomas Morr questioned that if Orangetown signs up as a customer and converts its vehicles, are they locked into using Mobile Fueling Solutions forever, or can they seek cheaper sources of fuel. The owners said either side would be free to break the contract whenever they wanted, but said they could foresee no circumstances under which the town would want to get fuel elsewhere because they will be getting such a price advantage from MFS.
The owners also invited town officials to contact their counterparts in Los Angeles ad Long Beach in California, which have used CNG fuel for years and are very pleased with the cost savings and performance of their vehicles. Dean noted that White Plains and Smithtown, Long Island both use CNG and he was told they too are very pleased with it over gas and diesel fuels.