Have Natural Gas Vehicle’s Finally Reached the Point of No Return?

By Barry Stevens | Mon, 11 March 2013 22:29 | 0

We tried or at least discussed this many times before. That is, an exodus from gasoline and diesel fuel. We have yet to find the promised land of an abundant domestic resource that that is more financially sound, environmentally friendlier, market ready and convenient. The path includes just about every primary energy resource in the world’s energy inventory.

Most have failed to support the customer base at the desired cost level. EVs looked like it got the checkered flag. EVs sound good, but it too has some fundamental issues hindering growth. Loss of incentives and questions on their consumer readiness has stalled recent sales projections. Also, as long as electricity, a secondary source of energy, is primarily generated from coal and natural gas, EVs by no means have a zero carbon footprint.

Even Hybrids, the sensible bridge, are under scrutiny. The EPA is reevaluating how it rates gas mileage for hybrids to make sure the estimate gas mileage matches real-world driving. “The agency’s action comes after Consumer Reports wrote that its gas mileage in real-world use of Ford’s new C-Max crossover and Fusion sedan hybrids, 37 mpg and 39 overall, respectively, fell far short of their EPA ratings of 47 in mixed driving.”[1]

Below the radar, at least in the U.S., is natural gas fueled vehicles, NGVs for short. Definitely abundant, cheaper and cleaner than petroleum, natural gas seemed to make a lot of sense as an alternate fuel for the transportation sector.  Also, it asked little of the customer base in terms of driving behavior. Interest was impacted by an undeveloped infrastructure and the cost to upfit a vehicle to natural gas.

The shale gas gold rush in the U.S. and the associated concern over hydraulic fracturing, “fracking,” made it nearly impossible to keep natural gas out of the limelight. Beyond electrical generation, the export market and the competitive advantages natural gas provides industrial users, there are not many more sectors where it can be absorbed by the U.S. economy. In many instances, use of natural gas only converts one domestic resource for another and does little to affect energy independence and security. For this to happen, the transportation sector, the driver of imported petroleum, must convert over to natural. It is noted that as natural gas replaces coal to generate electricity, EVs can indirectly change the need for foreign oil.

Looking at the global landscape of NGVs and CNG fueling stations, the United States although the world leader in both unconventional natural gas production and number of driver’s is ranked 15th with only 123,000 NGVs and 6th in terms of CNG fueling stations, see Figure 1. Iran, Pakistan (2,859,386 NGVs, 1,574 stations) Argentina, Brazil and China have significantly more NGVs and CNG fueling stations.

Related article: Buffett Banks on Natural Gas Trains

NGV Vehicle and Fuel Station Count
NGV Vehicle and Fuel Station Count 1
Figure 1

The playing field may finally be changing for NGVs! This week, the Star-Telegram and AP reported:[2]
“….. the sales of NGVs are rising”
“…..  Ford sold a record 11,600 natural gas vehicles last year, more than four times the number it sold two years ago”
“….. natural gas is making inroads as a transportation fuel, particularly for truck fleets, buses and taxis. The consumer market is tougher to crack, but sales are gaining there as well.”
“GM and Chrysler recently added natural gas pickup trucks to their lineups.”
“Honda is seeing more interest in its natural gas Civic — with record U.S. sales of nearly 2,000 last year…..”
“….. 20,381 natural gas vehicles were sold in the U.S. in 2012.”