Natural gas-powered vehicles: the other green

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CNG pump

A lack of refueling stations is one of the few disadvantages to owning a natural gas-powered vehicle. Image: darinrmclure/Flickr/CC BY

Automakers, driven by ever-toughening government standards and a desire to end dependency on foreign oil, have all been experimenting with alternative fuels and technologies. Although electric vehicles have gotten most of the press, theirs is not the only green technology available. Natural gas cars run cheaper, cleaner and more efficiently than gasoline engines; plus they never need to be plugged in.

Clean, plentiful, cheap

Compressed natural gas, or CNG, has many advantages over fossil fuels. Firstly, it burns cleaner. CNG has 97 percent less carbon monoxide and 30 percent less carbon dioxide than gasoline. Secondly, natural gas is plentiful in the U.S. Thirty-two states are now commercially producing it. Lastly, CNG is about half the cost of gasoline.

Aubrey K. McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy — the nation’s second largest producer of CNG — said:

“Without question, natural gas will allow our country to transition our transportation system away from expensive and carbon-heavy gasoline and diesel towards carbon-light, affordable American produced natural gas.”

Nothing new

Vehicles run by CNG have been around for some time. According to the International Association for Natural Gas Vehicles, there are some 13 million CNG vehicles operating in the world today. Of those, only about 120,000 are in the U.S.

The Honda GX

At this time, Honda makes the only CNG-powered car commercially available in the U.S. The Honda GX gets the equivalent of 32 miles per gallon.

Consumer Reports wrote of the Honda GX:

“Compared with gasoline, it has much cleaner emissions while providing similar fuel economy, performance, and driveability. If the natural-gas infrastructure in your area is well developed … the GX makes sense economically and environmentally.”

[Honda GX, The only natural gas powered car available in America — Howdy Honda, Austin] 

Lack of infrastructure

Which leads to perhaps the largest disadvantage of CNG vehicles at this time. There are very few refueling stations. Also, natural gas, even compressed, takes up more space than liquid gasoline. That means a shorter range for drivers between refuelings, and more space is taken up in the vehicle by the fuel tank.

Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler’s CEO, called for more government support in the form of infrastructure during a speech last summer:

“Without a shared vision in which government assists industry with customer incentives and the development of infrastructure, the potential for [CNG] vehicles in the U.S. will continue to be limited.”

Gearing up for CNG

President Obama, in a recent speech at a Las Vegas UPS truck-fueling site, spoke of his administration’s Alternative Fuel Plan. Part of the plan is to give tax incentives to gas stations that install CNG pumps. Businesses can likewise earn tax credits by converting truck and bus fleets to CNG.

Private industry is also taking a hand in paving the way for CNG vehicles. Rich Kolodziej, president of Natural Gas Vehicles America, said:

“Producers like Encana, Chesapeake, Apache and Pioneer are aggressively seeding the market. They have the self-interest to get out and cause stations to be built, by underwriting some of the cost. It all comes down to taking risk off the back of the station operator. Service station operators serve customers, they don’t create them. For natural gas to gain acceptance as an everyday transportation fuel, someone has to beat the bushes to create customers.”

Environmental issues

Perhaps CNG technology is not entirely green. In his speech designed to promote the use of CNG, President Obama also touched on one of its most controversial aspects. The President said:

“Because of new technologies … we can now access natural gas that we couldn’t access before. We’ve got a supply … that can last America nearly 100 years. Developing it could power our cars and our homes and our factories in a cleaner and cheaper way.”

The process Mr. Obama refers to is hydraulic fracturing — also known as “fracking.”  It is a process for extracting natural gas from rocks by injecting pressurized water and chemicals into the earth. Many ecological groups question the impact the process may have on the environment.


The Globe and Mail



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