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10 Things You Should Know About Natural Gas Vehicles

T. Boone Pickens laid out his grand ‘Pickens Plan’ on Tuesday (accompanied by a Web 2.0 media blitz) with the suggestion that natural gas could provide over a third of U.S. transportation fuels. While natural gas vehicles (NGVs) have been used for awhile in city-owned car and bus fleets, and even a selectively sold consumer car, the Honda Civic GX, natural gas hasn’t been getting as much attention as other forms of alternative vehicles recently from the big car companies and innovative startups. Electric vehicle-to-grid technology and biofuel vehicles have both received a lot more attention from the investment community, the media and interested entrepreneurs.

But there are a lot of opportunities — as well as a variety of drawbacks — for vehicles powered by natural gas. Here’s our take on 10 things you should know about natural gas-powered vehicles:

1). Infrastructure bottleneck: Like the “hydrogen highway” compressed natural gas vehicles need fueling stations. According to the natural gas vehicle trade group the Natural Gas Vehicles for America (NGVA) there are over 1,100 stations in the U.S. That might sound like a lot, but only half are available to the public, and compare that to the around 200,000+ U.S. gas stations. The U.S. would need a lot more natural gas stations to power a third of its vehicles. Who’s going to be the first to make that investment?

2). Greenhouse Gas Reductions: The NGVA also says that natural gas vehicles produce 20 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than a standard gas vehicle. That’s about the same as corn-based ethanol, which according to the EPA has a greenhouse gas reduction of 21.8 percent compared to gas-powered cars. So for greenhouse gas reductions its pretty good—but not perfect.

3). “Natural gas is the cleanest transportation fuel available today”: That’s what Pickens and the EPA say about natural-gas powered vehicles. It’s because, in addition to carbon dioxide reductions, NGVs also emit less carbon monoxide, non-methane organic gas and nitrogen oxides.

4). Natural gas is still a fossil fuel: Natural gas might be cleaner-burning than oil but it’s still a hydrocarbon that has to be taken out of wells and is in limited supply. The California Energy Commission says that with the rising demand for natural gas (accompanied by high oil prices) more than 15 percent of our natural gas will be imported from countries other than Canada and Mexico by 2025.

5). The Honda Civic GX: The natural gas consumer car that costs $24,590. It’s sold in California and New York and has a 170 mile fuel range.

6). Smaller Range: Natural gas vehicles have a shorter driving range than regular gas-powered vehicles, because natural gas has a lower energy content compared to gas.

7). State and Federal Incentives: Honda says the Civic GX is eligible for a combination of federal (under the Energy Policy Act of 1992), state and local incentives that could help reduce the price tag by several thousand dollars. Natural gas vehicles can also drive in the carpool lanes in some states like California.

8). With Gas Prices High, Natural Gas is Cheap, For Now: With the price of gas rising, the demand at the natural gas fuel stations that are out there is way up — like this one in Salt Lake City. That’s because, as Cleantechnica puts it “natural gas now costs about half as much per unit energy as gasoline and has an even greater cost advantage over diesel fuel.” Though natural gas prices are also going up.

9). City Fleets: The GX might get a lot of press, but a significant portion of the natural gas vehicles on the road in the U.S. are owned and maintained by cities and companies. Companies like UPS have placed orders for hundreds of natural gas vehicles; several cities in California have converted their fleets to NGVs.

10). Home Fueling: A company called FuelMaker makes a natural gas home refueler called Phill. Seriously, that’s what they named it.

42 Responses to “10 Things You Should Know About Natural Gas Vehicles”

  1. Nuclear energy is the only reliable, clean, (no greenhouse gasses or other chemical pollutants) dependable and readily deployable technology out there. If we reprocessed nuclear fuel like the French do, in “breeder reactors” we wouldn’t have the problem of vast amounts of spent rods and radioactive waste that seems the only down side to nuclear energy. Electric cars powered by electricity generated by relatively clean nuclear energy make sense as a competing choice to CNG. If that doesn’t turn you on, then CNG vehicles would be the next best thing because they can run with existing technology modified to burn gaseous fuels vs. liquid fuels. They can be fueled from regular gas stations in most cities by plugging into the existing natural gas infrastructure and simply pre-compressing it for delivery to the vehicles. For those who aren’t able to do so, like propane, gas can be delivered in a liquid form by truck and then put into tanks like gasoline. Natural gas now used by electrical generating plants could be decommissioned and their fuel reallocated to motor fuel purposes. Coal fired plants could be decommissioned as well and their coal gasified or converted to liquid petroleum for diesel and lubricants or for industrial material processing (petrochemicals and other materials made from oil). This would free us from foreign oil for the most part and we would be far less vulnerable to external threats.
    To sum it up, we need to convert a majority of our electrical production to nuclear and utilize this energy for both transportation and to traditional use. This would free up less polluting, more available and deployable, domestically produced fossil fuels like natural gas as motor fuel while gasified/liquefied coal products can be used for other purposes. When other technologies like use of biomass and solar become more advanced, thereby more economical and deployable, we can use them to fill the gaps in the power grid as its demands grow and to provide a competitive alternative to CNG/LNG / Electrical powered vehicles. Gasoline powered vehicles will slowly disappear as they are replaced by vehicles powered by alternative energy sources.

  2. B Crumpacker

    The fuel is plentiful and available. Trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, much of it offshore along the US continental shelf but easily accessible with current technology. we could run on cng for decades. The distribution is easy. Home fill units are available for installation and come with tax credits; there are many cng fill stations in Southern California, Utah, Oklahoma and Texas; and gas stations can be converted. Wow, fill up at home using the existing natural gas pipes. The technology is available. Europe, South America and Asia already have huge cng fleets with multifuel engines manufactured by US companies. So everything is available and reasonably priced, and yet we’re not allowed to drill offshore; and the oil companies and manufacturers don’t and won’t sell the cng and technology to us. Sounds like a MANUFACTURED problem.

  3. robert bartlett

    Does anybody have info on mpg differentials gasoline vs. cng ?

    What is happening with compressed air approach for transportation?
    there’s the one company in France ,(of all places), ( MDI ) and DePetrieos motor from Austrailia

  4. robert bartlett

    does anyone have info on the gas milage (mpg) being any different from gasoline.

    what progress is being made on the compressed air approach , any body know ?

  5. The future is in the Methane! after all gas doesn’t get any more “Natural” than that. One thing animals can all share is that need to consume and dump the waste. You harness those gasses into a fuel and that’s simple unlimited fuel. Maybe we’ll turn into the world of mad-max after all.

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  7. Mark Landson

    Wind turbines aren’t free from environmental impacts. It’s now recognized that no one should live within a mile and a half of a wind turbine farm for the psychological problems caused – presumably by the noise. So huge wind farms literally will render swaths of the country uninhabitable.

    Nuclear power is the only technology available today that we can say for sure has the ability to generate enough electricity at a reasonable cost to phase out fossil fuels.

    Combining nuclear with greater use of electric vehicles and the coming algae based fuels gives us a real possibility to get off fossil fuels in the coming decades.

  8. Chuck Peters

    Just returned from Australia. Nearly all consumer trucks are powered in part or wholly by natural gas. The infrastructure is in place for self-serve natural gas. The natural gas gives a boost in performance and emissions of diesel engines. The economics are also positive. The Aussie’s firmly state there is no silver bullet to the energy needed to power vehicles. After-market kits are also available to retrofit older engines to burn CNG. Why don’t our politicians look around and see what other people have done and are doing? Why do we let the oil lobby, car lobby and greed get in the way of just doing the right thing here in the U.S.?

  9. Gerben

    GM and Ford are already making NGVs. The problem is that they are only selling them outside the US. Americans never cared about the environment or the cost of their fuel before. If you want an NGV you can just have your current SUV converted (you’ll loose some space).

  10. Clean_Burning

    According to Popular Science (a leading source of science and technology news) the Honda Civic GX is “the highest performing investment one could hope for.” Their conclusion was based on a long-term evaluation “to test the viability of a Natural-Gas vehicle in daily driving” and to evaluate the home refueling station that fuels the Honda Civic GX overnight.

    GX Cost: $27,500
    (includes license, registration and DMV fees)

    Tax Credit: -$4,000

    Total Cost $23,500
    Note: I am not sure the interest cost over 5 year period

    Fuel: $7,475
    (based on average 500 gge/yr X $2.99/gge)

    Maintenance: $160
    (oil change every 10,000 miles)

    (five year total)

    5Year Cost Analysis $36,635
    (w/o interest)

    With nearly zero emissions, The American Council for Energy-Efficient Economy called the GX the cleanest-burning internal-combustion vehicle on Earth! Such environmental benefits coupled with the low fuel costs-about $1.20-$1.40 per gallon made this GX the smart investment.

  11. Mike is correct, Tony C, is wrong.

    North America is facing a huge shortage of NG within the next 10 years. Canada is using more and more of theirs to process their oil sands. LNG terminals take a long time to get up and running.

    Only hope is demand destruction by shutting down electricity generation from NG.

    Pickens plan needs to include nuclear power plants and PHEVs. Hmm, and with the nukes, you probably don’t need the wind. So maybe his plan isn’t so great after all…..

  12. Tony – Spoken like a true Republican hack. “Government rationing of energy”? “Environmentalist agenda”? What, is “Cappasso” a pseudonym for “Karl Rove”?

    You’re clearly no petroleum geologist, and you also clearly know nothing about the actual natural gas market. The gas industry has a 7-year backlog of drilling permits that they can’t get to, because every drilling rig in North America is in use right now … drilling for gas. And most of that drilling is taking place either in highly marginal, fast-depleting, small-reserve plays like the Piceance Basin and Upper Green River, or in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, where the Barnett Shale is yielding … expensive gas.

    There are no “huge reserves” of natural gas that will miraculously appear if we only let Exxon take over the EPA. I know, that’s what your talking points say, but you’re out of your tree – besides, since when did Republicans believe in science?

  13. Most of the list seems sensible except for the bit about natural gas being in limited supply. That’s rubbish.

    There are huge reserves of natural gas if only we will allow companies to go after them. No, natural gas isn’t the answer. There is no one answer. A mix of energy sources and uses is our only way out of this fix that does not invovle government rationing of energy, which is the real “environmentalist” agenda.

  14. Matthew is right.

    NG is in very short supply in the U.S. Pickens plan would only work if all NG currently used in electricity generation is diverted to vehicles; and if the vehicles were PHEVs.

    Also note that Picken’s impressive 4,000 megaWatt (nameplate) wind farm will end up producing about 800 megaWatts on average; about 1/2 the power of a good sized nuclear power plant. A single plant.

  15. Matthew

    Is T. Boone playing you for fools or what?

    The U.S. is rapidly running out of natural gas. By 2025, we’ll be importing closer to 90% of our gas, not 15% – unless Pickens has a plan to bottle the hot air he’s been spewing about how much gas is left in the U.S.

    Remember, gas is a tricky fuel – hard to transport, hard to develop – and up until recently, the U.S. produced most of its own and got the rest from Canada. But with the changes in the Clean Air Act in 1990, gas use skyrocketed and the price rose accordingly.

    But nobody mentioned that the U.S. passed peak gas 35 years ago – we’re now drilling the dregs, the most marginal gas plays left on the continent, and the price will only go up. We also pay less for gas than the rest of the world – almost 30% less. Once we become reliant on liquified natural gas for imports – in, say, maybe 10 years – our costs will go up at least that much, as our joining the global gas market will put upward pressure on prices abroad.

    This is a scam by a gas baron and Earth2Tech got pwned. See here:

  16. Take a look at China Natural Gas (ticker: CHNG.ob) and SNEN (ticker: sine.ob). Both run CNG filling stations in China and are growing very rapidly. They also do gas to CNG vehicle conversions.

    China is leading the way right now.

    We have a friend who owns a CNG car, they fill up their gas at PG&E, and they are thinking about getting a fueling station at home but it costs a few grand. May be worth it in the long run, and it would be nice to fill up at home.

  17. There are promising developments being made in the application of adsorbed natural gas (ANG) storage. For a good explanation of this, read the article titled “Adsorbed Natural Gas (ANG): Emmerging Fuel Storage Solution” published on the Green Energy News website on December 18, 2007. Much more information on this can be found simply by doing a Google search on “adsorbed natural gas storage for vehicles.”

  18. For the record…

    1. Fleet use of natural gas today (taxis, shuttles, govt., trucks & buses) opens up the opportunity for the general public. Private/public stations are being built all over the country and is a great model for growing the industry starting with the vehicles that are using the most fuel, thus emitting the most pollutants. Strategic locations negate the need for a station on every corner.

    2. The GX gets an estimated 30 mpg or so. With a 7+ gallon tank system that’s actually over 200 mile range. Fuel economy compared to gasoline is the same and totally dependent on the driver and driving conditions. 200-250 mile range is typical for light to medium-duty NGVs (taxis, shuttles, etc.).

    3. Natural gas for vehicles at public stations is typically sold in gasoline gallon equivalents providing an “apples to apples” comparision with gasoline. It’s not energy content that reduces range for NGVs, it’s the amount of NG that can be stored on-board a vehicle. Naturally, the larger the vehicle, the more storage capability and increased range. LNG is also used for heavy duty fleets and increases on-board storage as NG is much denser in its liquid form.

  19. I think most of the Flying Js in California have compressed natgas at them. That would make natgas a viable fuel for cars in that state.

    Ford built natgas vehicles for a while. I was filling up at a Flying J and a guy pulled up and filled a late model Taurus (?). He said it was very cheap to operate. That was in March. Natgas has gone up since then.

    The Utah stations have terrific natgas pricing. Kudos to Utah for setting up the infrastructure. Other governments could take a lesson from them. Other natgas suppliers engage in price gouging due to the infrastructure investment, ie the compressor, necessary to fill a car. Residential natgas could be an inexpensive fuel for a car, however it must be compressed to 3000 PSI to be used for transportation. That is what the Phill does.

    If you are going to use the infrastructure argument against natgas, then you use it against all alternative fuels: biodiesel, E85, electricity, hydrogen, etc. What comes first, the chicken or the egg ? (The alternative fuel car or the infrastructure ?) Sooner or later we need to realize that we are running out of liquid hydrocarbons and that other fuels must be supplied to consumers.

    I could say a lot more on this, but I will stop there.

  20. You are omitting perhaps the biggest advantage of NG vehicles – the cost of developing methane (the main component of NG) from renewable biomass sources is FAR lower than other biofuel alternatives such as ethanol, biodiesel, biobutanol, or even methanol. It is also far more efficient; for a given amount of biomass, you get about twice the energetic content in methane fuel compared with producing ethanol.

    Anaerobic digestion of biomass or cow dung produces methane from a waste stream currently poisoning our lakes and streams. The by-product is richer in nitrogen, so it makes a more effective fertilizer.

    Methane can even be synthesized from wind/solar sources. Water is electrolyzed to produce hydrogen, which can then be reacted exothermically with carbon dioxide (we have plenty of that!) in the Sabatier reaction. The result is a useful fuel with and extant infrastructure already in place.

    The optimal vehicle in the future would be a PHEV capable of both NG and gasoline fueling. This allows the vehicle to play with the existing gasoline infrastructure, and provide additional range. We should be building these yesterday.

    T. Boone is a bit off if he doesn’t acknowledge the important role the PHEVs will play in the future of our transportation. They can even be powered with his intermittent wind farms.

  21. Steve Pluvia

    T. Boone’s ideas are good; using nat-gas as a short term replacement for transportation fuel is a good idea. It keeps BILLIONS of $ in our economy which would produce a [much needed] economic stim unlike any we have seen. That said, nat gas as transport fuel is a very short term solution. Plug-in hybrids & all electric vehicles, are the very obvious long term solution. Large commitments to improve battery technologies, wind, solar, power storage and grid infrastructure improvements are all needed.

    Regardless of your opinion on T. Boone, trying to make energy the top federal and state agenda is [in IMO] key to rescuing our economy and perhaps the future of the U.S.

    Big kudos to T. Boone for spending his own money to try to focus our elected leadership on the $700 billion vampire that’s draining the blood out of the U.S. economy. We need someone to step up and execute a much needed rescue before we become Europe’s Mexico.

  22. Electric companies are installing mostly small natural gas ‘peaking’ turbines as their newest generating capacity. A major reason is that only natural gas turbines are fast enough to compensate for the extreme variations in power put out by wind turbines as the wind dies and surges, most notably during the evening and morning calm periods.

    Pickens’ wind turbines will just cause more gas turbines to have to be built and then run in continous stand-by mode, thereby causing additional CO2 to be made.

    Wind turbines are not so good if you are concerned about overall CO2 emissions. Clouds create a similar situation with solar installations. Pumped hydro needs to be added to large wind and solar installations to smooth out their electricity. As far as I know, while many utilities around the world use pumped hydro, not a single wind farm has done so. They just dump this problem on the grid they are attached to. I suspect Pickens will do the same.

  23. Lets put it this way. The big money criminals are just looking to put us in another market they control. If GM was going to start selling natural gas cars to the public, Wall Street would have billions invested waiting for the price of natural gas to triple. We need to Invest in Algae based bio-fuel, and electric cars that are charged by a tiny engine that runs on that bio-fuel. If you make plug in cars, the price of coal is going to double, then we are back to square one. The oil industry is going to do everything they can to keep us in the stone age. The time has come for us say we had enough.

  24. Nice one, Katie — beat me to it ;) Interestingly, CNG cars are already popular in some areas. I believe it was Utah or Idaho that I’d read about people buying them up in. But the supplies for transportation are so limited that just putting a few thousand CNG vehicles on the road noticeable pushes up the price. Can’t imagine it would be any better than the price of oil if Pickens got his way.