Will Natural Gas Become Mainstream in Automobiles?

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Will Natural Gas Become Mainstream in Automobiles?


A Cleaner Form of Fuel

The U.S. is producing almost exponential levels of natural gas and its abundance and low cost make the fuel increasingly attractive to many industries. In fact, its use in industrial markets include speculation that it may be poised to dethrone coal as a viable and cleaner form of fuel.

Montreal-based economist, Marcel Côté says “Natural gas is by far the most environmentally-friendly hydrocarbon. Provided its extraction is proven environmentally benign, shale gas will be a preferred energy source owing to immense global reserves that are expected to last at least 100 years.”

Natural Gas in Automobiles – the Latest

The automotive industry hopes to appease environmentally-friendly consumers by offering alternatives to cars powered by crude oil. Automobiles fueled by natural gas generate less carbon dioxide because natural gas contains less carbon than gasoline.

The California Air Resources Board reports that “Natural gas is a cleaner-burning, less costly fuel than gasoline, and vehicles powered by compressed natural gas typically emit 20 percent less greenhouse gases than gas-powered cars.”

In February, Honda introduced the natural gas-fueled 2014 model Civic, currently the only factory-produced natural gas-powered vehicle (NGV) from a major automaker. GM recently unveiled plans to produce its first – the 2015 Chevrolet Impala, featuring a powertrain that switches from compressed natural gas to gasoline seamlessly and has a total driving range of up to 500 miles, according to Ros Krasny of Reuters.

In a presentation to the DOE EIA 2013 Energy Conference, in Washington, DC, Dr. Michael Gallagher pointed out that, “…since 2009, Westport—the sole supplier of natural gas fuel systems to Volvo Car Group—has developed and installed natural gas systems for the Volvo V70 estate car at a facility located inside Volvo’s main production centre in Gothenburg, Sweden. The new Volvo V60 Bi-Fuel car runs on either compressed natural gas (CNG)/Biomethane or petrol (gasoline), and is a sporty estate car.”

If this trend continues it could turn out to be beneficial to both the energy industry and the day-to-day consumer. The high volume of natural gas the U.S. is producing, the vast reserve the U.S. has, and the fact the surplus makes the fuel cheaper than conventional crude oil make natural gas attractive to consumers and automakers.

NGVs that run on compressed natural gas (CNG) are better suited for shorter distance driving. Cars and trucks that need to cover longer distances do better with liquified natural gas (LNG).

Facts About Natural Gas Vehicles

NGV America (National Gas Vehicles for America), a national organization dedicated to the development of a growing, profitable, and sustainable market for vehicles powered by natural gas or Biomethane, has assembled the following facts about natural gas vehicles:

  • There are about 142,000 NGVs on U.S. roads today and more than 15.2 million worldwide.
  • There are about 1,325 NGV fueling stations in the U.S., and refueling appliances are available for home use.
  • In the U.S., about 50 different manufacturers produce 100 models of light-, medium-, and heavy-duty vehicles and engines.
  • Natural gas currently costs from $1.50 to $2.00 less per gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE).
  • In the U.S. alone, NGVs offset the use of about 400 million gallons of gasoline in 2013.
  • NGVs meet the strictest emission standards, including California’s AT-PZEV standard.
  • NGVs are as safe as or safer than traditional gasoline or diesel vehicles.

Is the Public Ready for NGVs?

There are, however, dissenting voices on the issues of natural gas powered vehicles. John DeCicco, in National Geographic, a research professor at University of Michigan’s Energy Institute who served on a recent National Research Council committee examining transitions to alternative fuels and vehicles stated,

“We’ve been there, done that.”

He refers to the public interest in NGVs, in the 1970s and early 1980s, spiked by the oil embargo in 1973 and the high fuel prices that resulted. Among the issues cited as obstacles are the lack of ready access to compressed natural gas (CNG) for consumers accustomed to the convenience.

Support for Natural Gas Vehicle Conversion

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, natural gas currently powers about 112,000 vehicles in the United States and roughly 14.8 million vehicles worldwide. In addition to the introduction of NGVs, the automobile industry is developing processes to convert select models from crude oil-based fuels to natural gas.

Conversion grants are already being implemented by state government in Pennsylvania. This may foreshadow future government grants in other states. To date, the grant in Pennsylvania has awarded 19 groups a sum of 6.3 million dollars, the first round of implemented funding spread out over 3 years.

One of the remaining complications is the creation of more LNG plants so liquefied compressed natural gas can be more readily available for future fueling stations.

While the technical barriers to NGV expansion are few, it will take sustained effort to continue the infrastructure expansion needed to resolve fuel availability and will require continued market demand to justify growth in the NGV market.

The potential for economic and ecological value remains strong if natural gas prices remain low.