Valley at forefront of alternate energy sources

Last week brought a nice surprise as I sunk into our living room sofa to surf the cable TV after work. On History Channel’s ”Top Gear” (the U.S. version of the wildly popular British show about cars and middle-aged men acting like kids), they had a full episode dedicated to electric vehicles. At one point, they decided to drag race three converted-to-electric vehicles: a Porsche 944, a Chevy S-10, and a real dragster.

What was painted on the side made me swell with pride: Lawless Industries. Based in Poland, Ohio.

Shawn Lawless’ shop has been cranking out electric parade floats for years. And now, his passion for speed meant more positive national publicity for the Mahoning Valley and for Lawless.

It also confirmed what I started to see happen several years ago: the Mahoning Valley is quietly becoming a significant hub for alternative fuel vehicle technology, including electric vehicle technology and compressed natural gas (CNG).

And it’s vitally important that the Valley does not pick one alternative fuel technology over the other, but rather to incubate and embrace all.

This year I was really happy to see Ohio-based IGS Energy choose the Valley for its next location to place a CNG fueling station (conveniently on Interstate 80 and Salt Springs Road). And now Trumbull County is gathering firms to commit to their own CNG initiative.

The more we can use clean-burning CNG and electricity to power our vehicles, the less reliant we as the United States are on carbon-releasing and trade deficit-fleecing gasoline. And that’s a great thing.

Because of the well-deserved energy the Valley is feeling from the emerging Utica and Marcellus plays, the more we are witnessing an increase to build out CNG infrastructure in the Valley. While I appreciate that momentum, the automotive and energy world has yet to crown CNG solely as successor to 87 octane.

When I questioned a high-end private equity firm in Houston last month on why they haven’t invested in CNG technology or infrastructure, they responded that their internal analysis demonstrated the economics were not right for them. It makes more sense, in their eyes, to increase natural gas as a source for electricity in the U.S., then to use that electricity to power your vehicle.

Right now when you plug in your Chevy Volt that you bought from Diane Sauer, Doug Sweeney or others, about 30 percent of your fuel comes from natural gas. That number is expected to rise significantly in the future.

I have always felt that there were two catalysts that was propelling CNG as the only option over electric vehicles: the organizational prowess of the natural gas industry; and the sensation that battery and storage technology isn’t there yet for electric vehicles.

Well, there are shifts that are taking place in both.

Recently, one of the most ardent proponents of CNG, Chesapeake, abandoned their direct participation in CNG by cutting its CNG team as part of a greater restructuring.

Further, a man named Elon Musk created one of the most wondrous cars ever made, the Tesla Model S. Consumer Reports, in May, called the Model S the best car it ever tested. Its battery range can now get you several hundred miles on one charge.

It’s still priced over that what the average citizen can afford, but so was the personal computer, VCR, DVD player and iPod at one point in their developments.

Lastly, when you look at the Mahoning Valley, one doesn’t realize how much involvement in the EV world we have.

Tucked away in the Champion campus is Delphi’s global hybrid and electric research division, employing hundreds of dedicated engineers improving their company’s involvement in EVs.

In New Castle, Axion Battery is an innovator in battery and battery storage componentry (that spans beyond vehicles).

And men like Shawn Lawless know how to take the Valley’s DNA in making things and applying it to next-decade technology.

I believe that the idea of tax credits for alternative vehicle technology is a smart use of government capital. It’s an amplifier of money in the country: The more we source our transportation fuel domestically, the more that money stays in this country.

But any credit should be applied to all alternatives. As I write this, I realize that I do have a bit of bias for electric over CNG. But I don’t believe that I am in position to predict the future.

Maybe 30 years ago, I would have chosen Beta over VHS. And given the Valley’s historical mistake of being overly reliant on one industry, I don’t want the region to pick one over the other and not realize the upside economically from any of it.

Planey is vice president of leverage finance and financial sponsors for Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp., in New York City. He is a former vice president with the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber.