The car culture we live in calls for us to go to gas stations for refueling, but the car culture we will see in a few decades may involve a far more decentralized approach to filling up the tanks, particularly if natural gas passenger cars become a viable choice for consumers.
That is one of the potential impacts of this apparent national push for natural gas passenger vehicles. The Department of Energy announced a $30 million fund in February for technologies that will lead to cheaper compressed natural gas cars and safer ways to refuel them. Energy Secretary Chu mentioned natural gas cars in his Earth Day chat Friday, and he talked about hybrids where the cars will run on natural gas for certain miles before switching over to gasoline.
One of the DOE’s goals is to make it safe and easy to use compressed natural gas at home. Many homes already receive natural gas from their utilities, so part of the infrastructure for delivering the fuel for cars is in place. While natural gas fueling stations are around today, many are built for fleets or set up for commercial gas sales. These fueling stations aren’t suitable for being installed in or around a home garage.
The DOE is looking for affordable materials and processes for compressing natural gas at home or lowering the pressure inside a fuel tank: “Today’s natural gas vehicle technologies require tanks that can withstand high pressures, are cumbersome and either too large or too expensive to be suitable for passenger vehicles,” the DOE said in its funding announcement. The research dollars will be used to “overcoming these barriers by developing innovative, low-cost natural gas storage technologies and methods to lower pressure in vehicle tanks that will help enable the widespread adoption of natural gas vehicles.”
The ability to fill up the fuel tank at home has never been a practical approach for the typical owners of gasoline cars. But we are seeing the opposite with the deployment of electric cars. In fact, utilities who are worried about a big surge in electric car charging during hours of peak demand are hoping that electric car owners would charge the batteries at night, when the overall demand on the grid is lower (so can be the price). And, in this early stage of promoting electric cars, publicly accessible charging equipment is popping up in the parking lots of businesses and government agencies.
Right now, this push to create fueling or charging stations beyond the usual gas station set-up is meant to help consumers make the transition away from gasoline cars. Policy makers and many companies in the electric car business still believe people want to go to an equivalent of a gas station to charge their electric cars or even replace depleted batteries. But the option to refuel at home will likely stay popular even when a lot more centralized charging stations are built. If natural gas cars become a cost-effect choice, then a garage of the future could well have fueling stations dispensing different types of fuels.
If the government manages to make natural gas accessible for refueling cars, then automakers will more likely invest in that building type of passenger vehicles. Many carmakers will point to a lack of publicly available natural gas fueling stations as a big reason why they aren’t rolling out light trucks and passenger cars that run on natural gas now. Ford, for example, is betting heavily on electric hybrids and all-electric cars and sees no good reason to roll out natural gas passenger vehicles (it develops natural gas trucks for fleets), said Mike Tinskey, associate global director of electric vehicle infrastructure at Ford, when I caught up with him for a test drive of an electric Focus in downtown San Francisco last week.
Natural gas ‘is best used for electricity generation and then we can use it,” Tinskey said.
Photo courtesy of Marcin Wichary via Flickr