Domestically produced natural gas offers cheaper, cleaner fuel for transport
BY STEFAN MILKOWSKI FOR GREENING OF OIL
You might not know it, but there’s already an alternative fuel for vehicles that cuts pollution, saves money and provides an “immediate solution to the nation’s energy security needs,” to quote the U.S. Department of Energy.
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What’s that fuel? Natural gas.
For now, only about 2 percent of the energy used for transportation in the United States comes in the form of natural gas. But according to the DOE’s most recent Vehicle Technologies Market Report, the use of compressed natural gas grew by 40 percent in the middle of the last decade, and the use of liquefied natural gas jumped by 145 percent.
In all, there are more than 120,000 natural gas vehicles on the road today in the United States and about 10 million worldwide, according to Natural Gas Vehicles for America, a trade association promoting natural gas vehicles.
In the United States most natural gas vehicles are purchased as fleet vehicles by municipalities and businesses. Regular routes, high mileage and the opportunity for centralized refueling infrastructure make the vehicles attractive. According to NGVA, one in five transit buses sold today runs on natural gas. As of last July, UPS had the largest fleet of natural gas vehicles.
But individual consumers are starting to get in on the action, too. Honda, which sells the only major-manufacturer passenger vehicle that runs on natural gas, started marketing its Civic GX to individuals in 2005 and quickly saw retail sales top fleet sales. The company sold about 1,700 of the cars for the 2009 model year, said Todd Mittleman, a spokesman for Honda. The cars are sold on a retail basis in California, New York and Utah.
Natural gas vehicles typically perform similarly to their gasoline or diesel counterparts, but have a somewhat lower range because of the reduced energy storage density of natural gas. The Civic GX, for instance, has a range of about 220 miles.
Heavy-duty trucks typically use liquefied natural gas, while lighter-duty vehicles generally rely on compressed natural gas. The engines are similar to conventional gasoline and diesel engines, and some vehicles can even switch between natural gas and petroleum-based fuels. Both LNG and CNG vehicles require special, pressurized tanks and fuel systems.
Natural gas powered Civic GX ranked greener than the Prius
Advocates of natural gas vehicles, or NGVs, tout many of the same benefits as advocates of electric vehicles—cleaner air and reduced dependence on foreign oil.
Most of the natural gas used in the United States is produced domestically, and almost all of the rest comes from Canada.
Natural gas vehicles also produce fewer harmful emissions than their gasoline or diesel counterparts, reducing emissions of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, according to the DOE.
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a research group promoting energy efficiency, has put the Civic GX at the top of its list of “greenest vehicles” for the last seven years running, above even Toyota’s fuel-efficient hybrid, the Prius.
Natural gas vehicles do release more methane than conventional vehicles, but government analysis has found that overall emissions of greenhouse gases, including methane and carbon dioxide, can be reduced with NGVs.
Because of the similarities between natural gas and hydrogen, NGVs are seen as a potential bridge toward vehicles running on hydrogen.
Cheaper fuel, if you can find it
NGVs generally cost more than conventional vehicles—the premium for heavy-duty vehicles can by $30,000 to $50,000—but can be significantly cheaper to operate. The DOE’s Clean Cities Alternative Fuel Price Report from October 2009 found the national average price for compressed natural gas was about 78 cents less than gasoline on an energy-equivalent basis. In the Rocky Mountain region, natural gas cost about half as much as gasoline.
There are also federal incentives that reduce the cost of the vehicles, fuel, and refueling infrastructure. Richard Kolodziej, president of NGVA, said extending and expanding those tax credits is his group’s biggest priority now.
When asked about the modest retail sales of NGVS, Kolodziej pointed to the lack of infrastructure. The country has about 180,000 gas stations, he said, and only about 1,300 natural gas fueling stations (many of which are closed to the public).
The future of transportation?
Nonetheless, Kolodziej is hopeful about the future of NGVs. With the right incentives, natural gas could meet 20 percent of the diesel market in 10 or 15 years, he said.
Kolodziej added that T. Boone Pickens, whose widely publicized “Pickens Plan” calls for a large-scale shift to natural gas vehicles, has done a lot to educate the public and policy makers about NGVs. Before, Kolodziej had to start his pitch by simply explaining that it’s possible to run a car on natural gas, he said. “We don’t have to do that anymore.”
Honda’s Mittleman was cautiously optimistic, noting that said sales of NGVs and hybrid vehicles have tended to increase when fuel prices rise. “We foresee increasing sales,” he said, “but we also need to see the expansion of infrastructure to support greater sales.”
Links of interest
US DOE on natural gas vehicles
Natural Gas Vehicles for America
American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy
Honda Civic GX
Contact Stefan Milkowski at firstname.lastname@example.org
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