What alternative fuel for N.J. drivers?

Posted: September 25, 2012

In New Jersey last year, 236 electric vehicles were sold, a seemingly huge increase over the previous year, when consumers bought only six plug-in cars.

The numbers aren't thrilling automotive retailers. They face increasingly tough mandates to sell so-called zero-emission vehicles, a requirement they say will be difficult to meet unless the state puts in place the infrastructure necessary to spur consumers to switch to alternative fuel.

But what type of infrastructure should that be? To power plug-in electric vehicles? Vehicles running on compressed natural gas? Cars and light trucks running on propane? What about vehicles powered by fuel cells?

Those questions will have to be answered by the Christie administration and lawmakers, both of which have largely ducked the issue.

By 2018, New Jersey's car dealers will have to increase plug-in electric vehicle sales to 19,000; by 2025, sales will have to grow to approximately 77,000 vehicles annually, according to a lobbyist for automotive retailers.

The infrastructure is key. Consumers will not buy cars they cannot readily refuel, according to clean energy advocates.

Promoting acceptance of cleaner running cars is contingent on resolving a wide range of issues, including range anxiety, higher costs, and limited refueling options, according to Laura Dooley, state director of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

That issue is going to dominate the agenda of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee over the next three months, according to its chairman, Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex).

"We want to do this right," Smith said at a hearing last week on virtually all of the bills aimed at promoting alternative vehicle development in New Jersey.

One of the primary issues to resolve is how and which alternative fuel to promote through incentives adopted by the state. And what type of tax credits or incentives to pass to make it happen.

Most environmentalists favor plug-in electric vehicles, which they say will usher out the era of vehicles driven by fossil fuels.

In his opening remarks, however, Smith acknowledged the huge potential of converting fleets to natural gas, a fuel that reduces air pollution while also offering significant savings to businesses.

But a big problem, Smith conceded, is what happens if consumers switch to alternative fuels instead of gasoline, whose taxes fund most of the state's transportation projects.

To help the state navigate those issues, the panel approved a bill to establish a study commission to look at various clean car options in New Jersey.

Read more of Tom Johnson's energy and environment stories at www.njspotlight.com

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