13 April 2012

Where are the Natural Gas Vehicles?

Posted by John Freeland

Gasoline prices are up, natural gas prices are way down. Vehicles can run on natural gas. So, where are all the natural gas vehicles? A good overview of the feasibility of using natural gas as a vehicle fuel is available in the 2010 International Energy Agency publication “The Contribution of Natural Gas Vehicles to Sustainable Transport“.

The advocacy group Natural Gas Vehicles for America reports there are about 112,000 natural gas-powered vehicles (NGVs) in the United States and over 13 million worldwide. Roughly 70% of all NGVs in the world are found in five countries: Argentina, Brazil, India, Iran and Pakistan (IEA).

The biggest impediment to more NGV use in Europe and North America appears to be the lack of a broadly distributed vehicle fueling infrastructure. This needs to change. Writing in the Financial Times, economist Martin Wolf recently put it this way: (emphasis added)

“The world will be vulnerable to high oil prices and repeated shocks, so long as supply is stagnant, demand buoyant and unrest likely – in short, so long as it remains as it now is. For the U.S., the best response would be to lower the oil-intensity of its economy, to reduce vulnerability to these shocks.

To “lower the oil-intensity,” we’ll need to develop technology that gives us greater efficiency and cleaner, abundant energy. There are pros and cons to natural gas and individual cases vary, but, compared to petroleum-based transportation fuels, natural gas, in my opinion, has a better triple bottom line:

The Honda Civic GX Compressed Natural Gas was named the 2012 Green Car of the Year. Judges included Carl Pope, Chairman of the Sierra Club; Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council; Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of Ocean Futures Society, and Matt Petersen, president of Global Green USA. Also, Jay Leno noted auto enthusiast…”

Natural gas burns cleaner than petroleum fuels, especially with respect to NOx and particulate pollution. It emits around 20-30 percent less CO2 compared to energy-equivalent petroleum fuels. Natural gas is chemically simpler compared to gasoline, which contains 150-1000 different compounds, including toxic aromatics like benzene. Lighter than, air, natural gas “spills” dissipate into the atmosphere rather than potentially polluting land and water.

On the negative side, natural gas derived from shale by hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling has raised concerns about pollution. Natural gas is a potent greenhouse gas and “phantom leaks” need to be addressed.

Natural gas prices are lower than they’ve been in a decade. The website altfuelprices.com has an interactive map that shows recent prices for a gallon of gasoline equivalent (gge) sold at fueling stations around the United States. Prices vary, from $0.59 in Pennsylvania to up to $4.00 near New York City, with an average around $1.50.

T. Boone Pickens claims over $1 billion leaves the U.S. each day to buy foreign oil. Redirecting that expense to develop domestic natural gas would generate a lot of economic growth and improve the balance of payments. I trust Martin Wolf’s assessment.

Social Benefits
The benefits to society brought by using more natural gas instead of oil are subject to individual perception. If one has a gas drilling rig next door and doesn’t see any direct benefit, the whole scheme is a nuisance. If one lives on a busy road and has kids bothered by asthma aggravated by diesel exhaust, the natural gas boom is good news. Could we pay less military attention to the Middle East if we didn’t need their oil?

Slow Progress
There is slow, steady progress toward building a natural gas vehicle infrastructure in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Energy’s natural gas fuel locator is one source of information about places to fill up with “nat gas.” To facilitate conversion of diesel trucks to natural gas, a company called Clean Energy is building a network of fueling stations they call the American Natural Gas Highway¬†at Flying-J truck stops across America.

The website NGV Global News is the best I’ve seen for up-to-date news on developments in the nat gas transportation market.

In full disclosure, I’ve done environmental consulting work for energy companies and will likely do so in the future.