Natural Gas has emerged as the most abundant fuel supply in the U.S, particularly with “fracking” opening up access to huge domestic sources. This cleanest of fossil fuels has long been commercially supplied to homes for heating and cooking. Fleet vehicles using Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) version engines have continued to grow over the past few years and FedX among others has recently announced plans to transition to natural gas. With gasoline prices continuing to rise in the U.S., and concerns over climate change growing, it seems inevitable for CNG cars to be the next wave of automotive innovation, and yet little headway has been apparent on this front.
The hold up has been a lack of natural gas “pumps” (actually the term for gas is dispenser) and the limited availability of CNG vehicles to stimulate consumer interest and demand. This classic chicken and egg story may be cracking open thanks to the high cost of gasoline, the rise in domestic supply of natural gas, and signs of new CNG vehicles. Recent announcements about newly manufactured CNG cars and hints of an expansion for natural gas distribution “at the pump” in the U.S. could be harbingers for a new era for natural gas vehicles.
New Natural Gas Vehicles
Looking for an option to buy a new natural gas car has been about as easy as finding a place to fill one up. There are conversion options but these have been less than desirable to consumers since retrofits are expensive and tend to be disruptive to vehicles (like taking up most of the trunk with a tank.) But the flood of natural gas appears to have stimulated at least one car maker. Chevrolet made big news recently with the announcement it will produce a Bi-Fuel Chevy Impala by 2015. Read more on the Chevrolet blog. The website story notes this Impala would be the only manufacturer-produced, full size bi-fuel sedan in North America. Bi-Fuel is similar to gas/electric hybrids allowing the driver to easily switch between gasoline and natural gas. Unlike electric versions, natural gas cars can travel longer distances on a tank similar to gasoline powered vehicles. In addition, at present natural gas is much cheaper than gasoline or diesel fuels, and as noted is the cleanest burning fossil fuel.
The Impala will join the Honda Civic which has been the leading manufacturer-produced CNG car available to consumers.The Civic GX, a dedicated CNG vehicle, has been available for many years. As an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) product, GM is the first of the big three to offer a CNG passenger car with the new Impala. There have been several after-market and EPA certified conversions available for some time now on other passenger vehicles like the Ford Fusion. Additionally, Ford, GM, and Dodge have all started offering OEM bi-fuel pick-up trucks with the 2014 models. Rumor has it that other auto manufacturers have CNG and Bi-Fuel vehicles in design. If the Impala catches on it can’t be long before others follow. That, of course, will depend on consumers actually being able to find a place to easily fill up their natural gas cars.
New Natural Gas Dispensers
There are places in America today where CNG cars can be refueled and the numbers are increasing. The Department of Energy’s energy.gov website list of alternative fueling stations show 1263 locations currently in the U.S. Compare this to thousands of gas stations and it’s clearly a drop in the bucket needed for CNG cars to actually become mainstream. However, rumors persist that major gasoline station brands are working on plans for adding CNG dispensers. (Think of those lone diesel pumps at the island of most gas stations.) Clearly, the investment will be high and change slow to come until more passenger vehicles are readily available to create the demand.
Chevrolet taking the giant step first off the high platform could be the lemming to draw other major U.S. car makers into what appears to be very clear waters for a move into natural gas vehicles.
Teco Peoples Gas in Florida has not been waiting on the Shells and BPs of the world to promote the benefits of CNG. The largest natural gas supplier in the Sunshine state has been actively working with fleets interested in transitioning to the cleaner, more affordable fuel. They see home fueling as the natural progression in growing the CNG market. The in-home solution consists of a simple small compressor that mounts on the garage wall or a pedestal version and allows for refueling of a CNG vehicle overnight. The unit connects to the natural gas line that serves the home. Peoples Gas is working with home builders that already offer natural gas to their home buyers to feature the CNG filling “stations” as an option.
Peoples Gas recently did a successful promotion with the huge Nocatee community in Northeast Florida. The home refueling appliances were staged in several builder model homes. According to Trudy Clark of Peoples Gas the reaction from visitors to the models and builders was positive.
“Everyone was surprised to learn that an option for having a CNG home refueling appliance was even possible,” said Clark. “Our builder partners like the idea of having another green option to offer with their homes so we see real potential as more natural gas vehicles become available.”
She said the company has been primarily focused on serving fleet operations but sees real potential growth in CNG cars at the consumer level in the coming years.
Since the days of cheap gasoline clearly appear to be in the past, and with more and more consumers interested in saving on fuel costs and minimizing carbon emissions, the time appears to be ripe for expanding the natural gas infrastructure and making more cars available domestically.
Would you make the switch if CNG cars and places to refill them were more readily available? Share your thoughts with a comment and join the dialogue.