PHILADELPHIA — The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) held a public forum at Drexel University on May 31 to examine the increased use of alternative fuel vehicles, specifically electric and natural gas.

“We are pleased to have so many senior representatives from companies that are actively involved in alternative fuel vehicle projects joining us for this discussion,” said PUC Chairman Robert F. Powelson. “Our goal is to engage in a conversation on how the PUC and the Commonwealth as a whole can foster policies and regulatory frameworks that support investments in natural gas and electric vehicles and their required infrastructure.”

Presented at the Anthony J. Drexel Picture Gallery at Drexel University’s Main Building on Chestnut Street, the five PUC Commissioners attended and gave opening remarks. An overflow crowd attended, and both electric and natural gas vehicles were on display on Chestnut Street outside of Drexel’s Main Building.

The agenda featured 17 presenters who addressed natural gas and electric vehicles. The move toward increased use of alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) creates numerous issues and questions, many of which impact the PUC’s core functions.

Although several presenters talked of electric vehicles, it was the Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) vehicles that most attendees were interested in for several reasons. First, until our country’s power grids are completely weaned of coal (which could take years), the reality of the “greenness” of the electric vehicles is in question. Specifically, as several presenters addressed, when a consumer plugs into their home outlet, chances are good that the electric battery car they are charging has fossil fuel coal firing the electric company.

Terry Boston, of PJM Interconnection Inc., Boston, noted that if a million electric vehicles plugged into outlets on a regional grid at the exact same time on one hot summer day, there would be a massive power failure. He noted that the Mid-Atlantic grid could not handle the need, and there would be a massive blackout.

“I would be looking for other business opportunities quickly,” Boston quipped.

Which led to an interesting debate on CNG fueling, infrastructure and the ability for the United States to control its own destiny as for powering cars, trucks, buses and trains in the future.

Norman Herrera, director of Market Development, Chesapeake Energy, noted in his presentation  that a move to CNG fueling stations and natural gas vehicles is in the making.

“We’re already well into the infrastructure process in the Marcellus Shale area of Pennsylvania, with numerous CNG re-fueling stations being planned with Randy Williams of Williams Oil Company and his Dandy Markets chain,” Herrera informed at a luncheon break. “It is vitally important that consumers realize that although there may be just a small percentage of vehicles running CNG at this point, there will be millions of CNG vehicles in the future.”

Herrera and Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, both feel there are explosive growth opportunities in CNG as an everyday internal combustion fuel, and that informing consumers is most important.

“There is a need for correct infrastructure, proper taxing of CNG and smart, thoughtful legislation. We need a fair playing field in a non-regulated selling environment,” Klaber said.

Herrera agreed.

“We need to lay the groundwork that includes customer education and outreach. If we don’t lay this groundwork, and assist in the proper use of CNG programs, when oil drops to $50 a barrel we’ll be in the same situation we’ve always been in. People will again forget about alternative fuels,” stressed Herrera.

Laura Scott, vice president of Finance and Strategy, Gulf Oil, initially discussed the “drop in oil price” issue, and feels that the electric car might be the better alternative.

“When oil drops in price, electric vehicles might be the better choice,” Scott said.

Her comments met with concerns by both presenters and those in attendance, although audience Q&A was not permitted. Most everyone admits the “coal-fired electric car” is what you buy today when you lay down a substantial amount of money for a Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf.

“We can’t allow a reversal of alternative fuel thought when oil prices drop,” said Matt Sheppard, Chesapeake’s vice president of Government Affairs, who was attending the conference. “We simply can’t control the price of crude, and we rely then again (on oil pricing) in an area of the world that is very troubling and filled with unrest.”

Dan Merz, of Williams Companies Inc., one of the leading energy infrastructure companies in North America, attended the conference and also feels the future is with CNG vehicles instead of electric.

“Infrastructure will have to come first and the CNG vehicles will follow,” Merz said. “We’re looking right now at some great progress in the Marcellus region, as many CNG filling stations will appear in the near future.”

Williams Companies own interests in or operates 15,000 miles of interstate gas pipelines, 1,000 miles of natural gas transportation pipelines, and more than 10,000 miles of oil and gas gathering pipelines. The company boasts a daily gas processing capacity of 6.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas and natural gas liquid (NGL) production of more than 200,000 barrels per day.

It was generally agreed by most all attendees that the use of hydraulic-fracturing to pull gas from the earth as far as 15,000 feet below the surface will result in major opportunities for the country to reduce dependence of foreign oil. Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale is a major producer of natural gas that is so pure right from the ground, it needs little cleansing prior to being pumped through the pipelines to market.

“One thing is for sure,” Herrera continued. “Natural gas burns cleaner than any gasoline or diesel fuel out there, even those mixed with Ethanol, and it costs half the price of gas or diesel.”

“In the near term, we’re talking about replacing overseas oil with domestic natural gas,” Klaber said. “This means converting all transportation vehicles, to run on natural gas.” (Currently, Honda is the only manufacturer offering a 100-percent CNG vehicle, the Honda Civic CNG model.)

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter attended the six-hour conference and addressed the group.

“This is a very exciting time for alternative fuel vehicles to make a big move forward, and allow the city of Philadelphia less dependence on foreign oil.” Nutter stated that the alternative fuel opportunities will impact every city in America, and he looks forward to more important seminars and conferences on the subject.

Overall, 17 presenters journeyed to Philadelphia for the conference, and the PUC was extremely happy with the turnout of near 200 attendees.

“We weren’t sure how many people would attend, said PUC’s Press Secretary Jennifer Kocher. “Next time, we’ll make sure we have a bigger room and more seats.”

The Drexel-hosted forum is the first step in a critical “early adopters” alternative fuel vehicle issue. The success of the conference will now result in jurisdiction and creating a foundation for possible future action by the commission.

The PUC balances the needs of consumers and utilities to ensure safe and reliable utility service at reasonable rates; protect the public interest; educate consumers to make independent and informed utility choices; further economic development; and foster new technologies and competitive markets in an environmentally sound manner.