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In recent years, Questar has spent about $1.5 million annually on building refueling stations, bolstered by ratepayer subsidies of about 3 cents per month. The company owns nearly half of the natural gas fueling stations in the state — 30 of 66.
And, while other states have favored a free-market approach, the Utah-Questar partnership has meant the Beehive State has a more expansive fueling network than any other, including energy-progressive California, on a per-vehicle basis. In fact, Utah is ranked third nationwide in the number of public CNG fueling stations behind California and Oklahoma.
Some alternative-fuel vehicle facts
Utah has 1 CNG station per 22,727 cars.
California has 1 station per 120,623 vehicles.
Of the 14.5 million cars sold last year, around 20,000 were natural-gas vehicles and 53,000 were electric.
Alternative-fuel vehicles hearings
Wednesday » The Public Service Commission will hear from organizations and people who have weighed in on the idea of using alternative-fuel vehicles to improve air quality, starting at 9 a.m.
Thursday » The commission will take testimony from the public at 1 p.m.
Location » Both meetings take place in the Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Room 210.
"The only piece that we are missing is the fueling piece," said Questar spokesman Chad Jones in an interview. "If you’ve got more stations, you’ve got more cars."
Adams has insisted that, although the bill directs the PSC to deem the ratepayer subsidy as being "in the public interest, there is no guarantee ratepayers will be picking up the tab." That’s what the bill asks public service commissioners to decide in a months-long review process that culminates in a report to the Legislature by Sept. 30.
And, if the decision is to allow Questar to charge ratepayers up to $5 million to help build an expanded natural-gas network, the costs will be minimal, the Layton Republican said, around 10 cents a month on a typical gas user’s bill.
Governors of 10 states, including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, have pledged to increase natural-gas vehicles, especially for fleets. Heavy-duty trucks and buses generally last longer than passenger cars and have more time to make up for the higher-up-front costs of new natural gas vehicles, the reasoning goes.
On the other side of the issue, advocates for Utah’s poor and elderly, continue to challenge whether it’s fair to ask ratepayers to help underwrite expensive vehicles and cheap fuel so others can save money on fuel.
At a legislative hearing on SB275, Michele Beck, director of the state’s Committee on Consumer Services, raised a concern that the industry subsidy might not work as intended.
"Perpetuating below-cost NGV service," she said, "is contrary to the development of a long-term, sustainable market."
Freidman, the transportation expert, said "there’s a limited role" for natural gas as a transportation fuel.
The future looks more promising for clean diesel and cleaner, higher-efficiency gasoline vehicles. Most see the brightest future for electric vehicles, which emit no pollution.
Meanwhile, natural-gas vehicles have been slow to gain traction because of their high initial costs (a CNG Honda Civic costs about $8,000 more than a gasoline version) and because of the enormous cost of building a national natural gas network.
"Natural gas doesn’t make as much sense for you or me," Freidman said."You can save more money by buying a hybrid, which will be just as clean or even cleaner [than natural gas] especially when it comes to global warming pollution."
Meanwhile, at least one key question seems unlikely to be addressed: What will $5 million — or potentially more someday — do to clean up Utah’s air?
As the new interlocal panel and the public service commission wrap up their reports to the Legislature over the next two months, it is unclear whether there is an answer to the question anytime soon.
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