The Case for Natural Gas Transportation

For decades, both natural gas and electric vehicles have competed as alternatives to vehicles running on gasoline or diesel fuel. Now, it looks like sales of EVs may finally get traction in the U.S. But what about NGVs? While there are over 13 million natural gas vehicles in use worldwide, fewer than 200,000 NGVs, mainly trucks and buses, are plying roads in the States. Why?

Perhaps the most important reason is that NGV choices here have been quite limited. For years, the only natural gas passenger car sold by auto manufacturers in the United States has been the Honda Civic Natural Gas, recently named Green Car Journal’s 2012 Green Car of the Year. Both Ford and GM have sold NGV models here in previous years before being discontinued, mainly pickups and vans that achieved limited sales success. Ford also offered a compressed natural gas (CNG) Ford Crown Victoria sedan in the past, primarily for law enforcement and taxi duty.

Now it’s a new day for natural gas as Ford, GM, and Ram Truck have new natural gas pickups that feature bi-fuel systems capable of operating on either compressed natural gas (CNG) or gasoline. Ford has developed Super Duty trucks running V-8 gasoline engines modified to dual-fuel capability. GM, which already offers Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana CNG cargo vans with V-8 engines modified to operate on CNG only, has added dual-fuel CNG Chevrolet and GMC pickups to it choices. Dodge Truck’s Ram 2500 Heavy Duty CNG pickup is also now offered as a dual-fuel, CNG/gasoline variant.

Conversion to natural gas is possible, and in fact virtually any internal combustion engine can be converted to operate on natural gas. Companies like BAF Technologies and Baytech offer such conversions, although choices are limited to specific models, typically those popular with fleets since these are the largest NGV conversion customers. In the U.S., converters must invest a large amount of time and money – typically $200,000 or more – per engine family to receive EPA and CARB (California Air Resources Board) certification for their conversion systems. Also, certified engine conversion systems can only be installed by a very limited number of EPA and CARB approved installers. Thus, conversions can cost from $5,000 to $25,000 and are only available for vehicles whose sales volume can justify the investment.

In some countries, non-certified retrofit systems can be installed by just about anyone. That is why there are huge numbers of NGVs in places like Pakistan and India. It’s also why non-certified conversions installed by amateur installers have become a safety problem in places like Pakistan, illustrating why government regulation and oversight is so important here.

Another contributor to the relatively small number of NGVs on American highways is the lack of a widespread natural gas fueling infrastructure. According to the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center, the U.S. has about 1,000 natural gas fueling locations nationwide. While this number is growing, the total does underscore the relative scarcity of natural gas stations compared to stations dispensing gasoline, which number well over 100,000. All alternative fuels suffer from this challenge of fueling infrastructure build-out.

That said, the number of natural gas refueling stations is constantly increasing. This is being facilitated by the vision of companies like Clean Energy, which is actively building a ‘Natural Gas Highway’ with CNG and LNG stations located alongside busy trucking corridors. New answers like the Galileo Microbox, an easy-to-install and relatively inexpensive modular fueling station now being tested in California, are also important. This so-called ‘fueling station in a box’ contains all the main components in a single, factory integrated enclosure the size of a small shipping container, offering new ways for conventional gasoline and diesel fueling stations to add CNG fueling capability.

The substantially longer range of NGVs compared to EVs means much less range anxiety. For example, the Honda Civic Natural Gas has a driving range of up to 240 miles, more than twice the range of the typical EV. A bi-fuel NGV capable of operating on either natural gas or gasoline can travel anywhere a conventional internal combustion engine vehicle can go since the ability to run on both fuels means there is effectively no range limitation. Driving range can be substantial, with dual-fuel models like the Ford CNG pickup offering up to 650 miles between fill-ups.

Unlike an EV that typically takes hours to fully recharge, a CNG tank can be refilled in about five minutes at a commercial CNG refueling station. Like an EV, an NGV can also be refueling at home. For example, the Civic Natural Gas can be filled up with a wall-mounted Phill refueling appliance from BRC Fuel Maker. The process is similar to charging an electric vehicle at home since this slow-fill process takes several hours and is best done overnight.

Interestingly, an important reason why NGVs are not sold in large numbers in the U.S. may well be that they tend to be looked upon as strictly utilitarian vehicles with little excitement in their favor, quite the opposite of high-profile EVs. First adopters typically want their vehicles to shout ‘green.’ Conventional looking natural gas vehicles with a small CNG emblem simply don’t offer the same ‘wow’ factor, which can be a consideration when spending thousands of dollars more.

Natural gas for transportation has many advantages. It’s the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, which helps auto manufacturers build NGVs with extremely low emissions. The United States has abundant supplies of natural gas so this fuel does not have to be imported from far-away countries. Plus, natural gas costs less than gasoline on a gallon of gasoline equivalency basis, which means there are substantial costs savings the more an NGV is driven.

So, the question: Will NGV suppliers and manufacturers continue to concentrate on the commercial and fleet market, or will they see the value in consumer sales by also offering fun-to-drive, easily recognizable NGVs for the vast number of people who want to make a difference – and a statement – about driving ‘green?’ The answer promises to have a lasting impact on energy dependency, the economy, balance of trade, and air quality in the long run. Let’s hope it’s the right one.

 

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