This question isn’t easily answered, and a transition from gasoline to natural gas powered vehicles won’t be simple. Every day, we consume 70 percent of our oil getting from place to place—producing more than 30 percent of our greenhouse gases along the way. Natural gas is cheaper than oil right now and its emissions are cleaner than gasoline or diesel, but there are many factors to be considered before America can make a change including the car, how it will be refueled, the fuel itself, and, most of all, the driver.
The main concern is the fuel tank. Natural gas needs to be stored under high pressure, which means tanks have to be strong, heavy, and big. These requirements increase the price to produce the tanks, which in turn increases the price of the car. For example, the only natural-gas passenger car sold in the U.S.—the Honda Civic GX—costs about $5,200 more than a comparable gasoline vehicle and $3,600 more than the gasoline/electric hybrid Civic.
Although the price of natural gas is alluring, consumers will consider whether the gas savings will be worth the cost of the car.
Even if you buy a natural gas powered vehicle, you need a close, convenient place to refuel it. There are approximately 1,500 refueling stations in the U.S., and only about half are accessible to the public. So far, most refueling stations serve mostly fleet vehicles. Common sense tells you that if you can’t get the gas, you won’t be able to drive.
The simple solution is to build stations, but “simple” isn’t always as simple as one may think. According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, the average cost for building a gasoline station and convenience store was about $2.3 million in 2010. But the price to build a natural gas refueling station could cost as much as $500,000 more because of the extra equipment necessary—a compressor and storage tanks.
Cost isn’t the only factor. In order to obtain the natural gas, a station must be located in an area where it can hook into a distribution pipeline.
The amount of natural gas available isn’t a problem. The true challenge is bringing down the cost of transforming natural gas into liquid fuels so that it can be used in cars with conventional engines and can be pumped at regular filling stations. It can be done, but it costs billions.
Facilities that could perform such transformations are being considered, but processes won’t be commercial anytime soon.
Although people tend to accept products that can save them money, change doesn’t always come easy. Consumers usually lean toward products they know and trust. When you ask them to spend quite a bit more money upfront for a natural-gas powered car, they may shy away from the concept because they don’t automatically or immediately trust claims that the car will save them money in the end. Skepticism could be a real problem for natural gas powered vehicles.
The future of transportation and how natural gas will play into it remains a mystery. There are still plenty of questions to be answered, money to be spent, and innovations to be discovered. Stay tuned.