Those in the natural gas business are feeling a bit heady nowadays. But those with links to the automotive sector are saying that American roads are wide open. Increasing demand for the now inexpensive and relatively abundant natural resource is not just breathing new life into the power industry but it is also doing the same in the vehicle sector as well. Estimates are that the cost of compressed natural gas used in cars, buses and light trucks is about a third that of gasoline.
A recent Navigant Consulting report says that, globally, natural gas vehicles could hit 35 million by 2020. That is up from 18 million today. To be clear, two types of natural gas vehicles are prevalent: compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is used in long-haul, heavy-duty trucks. Many of the auto manufacturers are in the hunt, as well as the major natural gas producers such as Chesapeake Energy, ExxonMobil and RoyalDutchShell.
“We believe consumers deserve more choices in the vehicles they drive and the fuel they use to power their vehicles,” Kathryn Clay, executive director of the Drive Natural Gas Initiative, the membership-based, collaborative effort of America’s Natural Gas Alliance and the American Gas Association. “Natural gas is a clean, abundant, and domestic fuel that allows drivers to reduce their fuel costs without sacrificing style or performance.”
During a webinar last Thursday, Wesport Innovations spoke of the practical matters involved with fleet owners shifting over to natural gas vehicles. The firm, which engineers engines and other related products, said that both LNG and CNG are delivered to the engine, and thus it is a matter of how the fuel is stored on the vehicle. LNG is stored at super-cold temperatures and is perishable after a week whereas CNG is a warm gas that can be indefinitely stored.
Westport, for example, is working with Shell and Wartsila North America to co-market LNG-fueled trucks. The vehicles, generally, could be run on both diesel and LNG, which is luxury given that the fueling stations are few-and-far-between.
“We have a huge natural gas resource base right here at home and we should capitalize on it to displace foreign oil,” said Richard Kolodziej, president of NGVAmerica. “Natural gas vehicles are the best way to do that. They are a here- and-now technology, but, through more research and development, natural gas vehicles will get even more efficient, more cost effective and cleaner.”
The association is backing a bill before Congress called the Natural Gas Act, which would provide significant subsidies to heavy truck fleets as well as commercial vehicles if they convert from a traditional combustion engine to one that could also burn natural gas. The measure has bipartisan support in both chambers.
The natural gas vehicle group says that the benefits would outweigh the costs, noting that trucks could run 650 miles before they would have to re-fill, which would reduce the level of harmful emissions as well as displace gasoline usage — petroleum that is more-than-likely coming from abroad.
Opponents of the measure, conversely, are arguing that Congress has no special talent when it comes to deciding winners and losers. The market should decide: Currently, hybrid vehicles that run on both electricity and gasoline are popular while all-electric vehicles are trying to make headway.
The trend, though, has roadblocks: For starters, the infrastructure to support those natural gas-fired vehicles is not pervasive. Only 1,000-1,500 filling stations exist across the country, which makes driving long distances impractical. Beyond that, the tanks hold less fuel while consumers, right now, don’t have a lot of product choices. For those who want such a car, they will pay a premium of a few thousand dollars, although this money can be recouped in reduced fuel charges.
But those in the natural gas biz say the signs still point one way. Consider: Fed Ex and UPS as well as Waste Management, which are all filling up with CNG. It also means more LNG export approvals and additional rights to “frack” the shale gas from deep beneath the earth’s surface, neither of which will be political easy.
The shift toward natural gas vehicles is now moving mostly toward fleets and heavy-duty trucks. But the scale of the technology will expand, enabling more consumer-oriented progression. As that occurs, America’s streets will be paved with alternatively-fueled vehicles