Natural gas sub for vehicles will likely stay a dream for now

Alejander Ruiz, of AT&T, fills up his vehicle with Clean Energy Fuel at 7721 Washington in Houston. (Thomas B. Shea/Houston Chronicle)

Natural gas may be all the rage in the energy industry, but not when it comes to your car.

Vast supplies of domestic natural gas, unlocked by advances in drilling technology, have pushed down prices for the resource to their lowest levels in 10 years, providing a boost to those who argue for its use as a substitute for gasoline in consumer vehicles.

Meantime, gasoline prices are on the rise, reaching a national average Wednesday of $3.86 for a gallon of regular and $3.80 in Houston, according to AAA.

Natural Gas Vehicles for America estimates drivers could save more than the equivalent of $1.50 a gallon by switching to compressed natural gas for their commuter fuel, a change that requires a new car or a vehicle conversion.

But when it comes to making natural gas an attractive option for consumers, two key challenges remain: A dearth of cars and of refueling stations.

The effort to change that has been slow, the result of a “classic chicken and egg problem” between those who sell natural gas and companies that could produce cars to run on it, said Tiffany Groode, director of the automotive scenarios service for IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

“If there are no cars, then why would there be refueling stations?” Groode said. “And if there are no refueling stations, then why would there be cars?”

There are about 1,000 natural gas refueling stations nationwide, including three in Houston, according to government figures. Half of those, however, are not available to the public, but used, for example, to fuel a company or government agency’s fleet.

Just one choice

Only one natural gas-powered vehicle targeting consumers is available in the United States, according to Natural Gas Vehicles for America: the Honda Civic Natural Gas, which starts at about $26,000, $5,500 more than the Civic EX sedan.

GM and Chrysler this month announced plans to sell a limited number of bi-fuel trucks that run on both natural gas and gasoline, but they are aimed at commercial fleets.

Just 90,000 of the nation’s 223 million cars and trucks run on compressed natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

By 2035, compressed natural gas-powered cars and trucks are expected to account for 180,000 of the 274 million U.S. vehicles, according to the agency’s projections.

Bi-fuel vehicles that use compressed natural gas are projected to add 300,000 vehicles to that total.

Still, IHS CERA projects that no more than 3 percent of America’s vehicles will run on natural gas in the foreseeable future, despite the nation’s enormous supply. Other options, like electric vehicles and increasingly efficient hybrid cars, will give consumers rival choices for alternative fuel vehicles that could be more attractive because of the potential infrastructure limitations of natural gas, Groode said.

A compressed natural gas refueling station can cost $500,000 to $750,000 to install, while an electric car fast-recharging station costs about $70,000 for a two-plug unit, she said.

Chesapeake Energy Corp. is among the nation’s natural gas producers most aggressively attempting to improve infrastructure and make the fuel more attractive to consumers. The Oklahoma City-based company believes that, while gas will be a key resource for electricity and chemical manufacturing in the future, it’s also possible to boost consumer demand for natural gas in vehicles.

“You want to prove it to Detroit … that there’s a viable consumer market,” said Norman Herrera, Chesapeake’s director of market development. The way to start, he said, is to set up an infrastructure for fleets.

The company has succeeded in promoting CNG use within Oklahoma City, which now has 20 compressed natural gas refueling stations within the metropolitan area, Herrera said.

A tough sell

Chesapeake and other energy companies are trying to persuade more commercial fleets to run on natural gas, while building more natural gas stations in cities where those fleets exist.

Increasing the number of fueling stations can make natural gas a more acceptable option for private motorists, said Bruce Russell, spokesman for Clean Energy Fuel Corp., which owns the three natural gas refueling stations in Houston.

“What will pull it over time is the mixed demand, I would think, from fleet usage and consumer usage,” he said.

Still, even the biggest advocates of natural gas admit that it may be a long time before it can be an option for most Americans as a primary transportation fuel.

22 Comments

  1. Alex

    They do make home refueling stations for natural gas vehicles. They are popular in Utah where the state provides incentives for natural gas-powered vehicles.

    Part of the problem with them is the volume of the fuel tanks necessary to get a useful mileage range between fill-ups. This is why they’re popular with commercial motor pools, where they have room in the vans and trucks for larger tanks.

    #1
  2. Harry W. Parker, PhD, PE

    There is no major unique patent position available by which to make lots of money it is all “common knowledge” So there is little incentive to push natural gas as a vehicle fuel by investors. This is in addition to the factors mentioned in the article–limited range and few fueling stations. HWP

    #2
  3. Mike

    What’s the efficiency of natural gas? That’s an important consideration. E-85, for example, is about $1.25 – $1.50 cheaper per gallon than regular unleaded, but it’s less efficient and requires the tank to be refilled more often. Combine that with the fact that it seems to be harder on the engine and there go the cost savings. If you can only go 10 miles on a gallon of CNG, then what’s the use of making all of the capital outlays to convert vehicle production from gasoline to natural gas? More details would be nice.

    #3
  4. Commrade_Leftist

    Brazil has CNG pumps at most gas stations.

    #4
  5. orangemen

    There has been a push to convert at first the trucking industry over to natural gas for over 20 years. Instead of the Obama administration trying to tax the Oil and Gas industry he should be getting his pals in Detroit to develop trucks then cars to natural gas. Just think of follwing a truck with no diesel exhaust. Give the companies some incentive to CHANGE instead of TAXING them

    #5
  6. houengr1

    We can stick with gasoline and be dependent on foreign oil or we can work towards the next best solution which is natural gas. Electric may work someday but no time soon. A 70 mile range is not going to cut it. Fuel economy is equivalent to gasoline. Range is limited to a few hunderd miles because of tank size but 200-300 miles gets you where you need to go. Instead of spending billions on algea and wind, put the money to work on a real solution……..natural gas.

    #6
  7. TheRealRick

    The Texaco at the corner of Dunlavy and West Dallas is already $3.99 9/10 for a gallon of regular. Stay away from there.

    #7
  8. Thinkaboutitagain

    Mike, You get about the same efficiency as regualr gas with CNG. if you get 20-21 mpg on regular gas, you get about 19-20 mpgge ( CNG gallon gas equivalent).

    The biggest problem with CNG is the cost of the Conversion, roughly $6000-$7000, but there are tax incentives. I have a truck with a tank in the back and it take about 2 ft of cargo, same as a toolbox, most look like toolboxes in the back of a truck. But this summer I will be paying $2.50 max for CNG, instead of $4.50 min. for regular gas.

    Nat gas may go up, but I will have the option of CNG or Regular gas. But if more people used CNG, a US resource, we would stop giving foreign nations our money to start wars with US. Just a thought.

    #8
  9. Jeff Chandler

    “A compressed natural gas refueling station can cost $500,000 to $750,000 to install, while an electric car fast-recharging station costs about $70,000 for a two-plug unit, she said.”

    Yes, but a fast-charger takes a LOT longer to “fill” each car, so a natural gas station will pay off in being able to fuel more vehicles. Also, a fill of NG goes a lot farther in most cases than a fill of electricity, in currently available vehicles.

    What’s also missing in this, if you are a Climate Change true-believer, is that the electricity going into the cars is 50% coal-derived here in the US, and that transmission of that energy is inherently inefficient, since involves changing from heat energy, to electricity (not 100%), transmission through power lines, (also), charging batteries (heat loss due to internal resistanct) then going through a motor (not efficient). Natural gas comes out of a well under pressure, goes through a pipeline under that same pressure, feeds into the vehicle, THEN is burned in a fairly efficient manner in the same engine technology we’ve been developing for well over 100 years for moving vehicles. You’re not going through as many state-changes and energy conversions using CNG.

    Natural gas engine technology is also a potential bridge to hydrogen tech. The infrastructure is largely similar.

    #9
  10. Mark from Louisiana

    The conversion kits to run an engine on natural gas would be much cheaper but the kits have to meet the same EPA rules as new vehicles including hundreds of thousands of miles of testing and they have to have the same warranty as the vehicle.
    Wouldn’t it be easier to refine natural gas into gasoline? From thehayride.com

    That’s the message from Shell, regarding a major project the company has developed in Qatar which refines natural gas into liquid fuel products nearly indistinguishable from those produced out of crude oil. That message could be a significant one for Louisiana, as it involves what might result in the largest industrial investment and job-creation engine in the state in two generations, and soon.
    The upshot? Creating diesel, jet fuel and gasoline from natural gas is a cost-effective alternative to the heavy lift required to transfer the national transportation-fuel infrastructure from oil-based fuels to compressed natural gas – although, as the recent announcement by GE and Chesapeake to expand CNG infrastructure shows, that project is ongoing as well.
    As such, the word is Shell is going to build a new GTL facility, on par with the size of Pearl, in America so as to take advantage of the more localized demand. And the word is within three to six months, Shell expects to announce a decision on a site somewhere on the Gulf Coast. And Louisiana, with its plentiful supplies of “dry gas” coming out of the Haynesville Shale and its world-class natural gas infrastructure, could very well win out as the domicile for the facility. Within 18 months of the site selection Shell expects to finalize its construction plans, and it’s expected that four years later a GTL facility which employs some 10,000-12,000 permanent workers will go on line.
    Considering that it’s been 40 years since a new refinery has been built in the United States, this could be a colossal piece of news for the region. It’s also a significant piece of news for the natural gas industry – because Shell anticipates its American facility will take in some 1.3 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, and that could be enough to move the price of natural gas upward. Which is good news for landowners in places like the Haynesville Shale, who are disappointed to see wells shut in thanks to the current poor prices for gas.

    #10
  11. Trail_Tramp

    @Mike The Honda Civic GX, for example, offers a CNG fuel-economy estimate to gasoline of 24 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. A limiting factor is the 200 mile range for one tank full of CNG.

    #11
  12. Felix

    There are so many reasons to support CNG for cars, as listed previously, but also, the simple mixture of this resource into the transportation mix can not help but lower costs all around. CNG is a viable, much safer form of fuel as it does not ignite or explode if tank is ruptured. Needing far less processing, means the price will be more stable and not subject to local specialty blends as we have on petrol. Many less developed countries use CNG as a less costly means to support their economy. If Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil can make it work, we should have no problem with it! Most likely, greatly enhance the efficiency!

    #12
  13. ethan perez

    the Shell station on Shepherd Dr. @ Dickson St. has regular unleaded at $4.09! I saw people fueling their cars and I just shook my head

    #13
  14. Jackalope

    Instead of CNG, what about LNG (liquefied natural gas)?

    #14
  15. chiefdecoy

    They have been successfully using natural gas for autos in Brazil for many years. Minus loosing some available power, it works just fine. However, much like the “flex-fuel” engines, availability makes it a mute point.
    It can be done. There are many alternative options available. They can be exploited while research continues. In the mean time, enjoy your $4 a gallon gas. That’s what happens when your president promises to go after speculators, then does nothing, all the while having no energy policy…..

    #15
  16. Adler

    “But when it comes to making natural gas an attractive option for consumers, two key challenges remain: A dearth of cars and of refueling stations.” Those are hardly the reasons.

    Try rotten mileage. You couldn’t drive a CNG car to San Antonio and back without filling up, but for a the same model car running on gasoline it’s no problem.

    Need to haul groceries home in your trunk? Luggage for a vacation? Golf clubs? Forget it. Your trunk is taken up by the CNG tank.

    #16
  17. Jefff

    The way to compare prices between dissimilar fuels such as natural gas and gasoline or electricity, is kWh for kWh (or in olde English units, British Thermal Units (BTUs) for BTUs). When you do that the price for natural gas delivered to your house by Centerpoint Energy is equivalent to $1.50 per gallon of gasoline.

    Compressed gas tanks are big, whether they contain methane or hydrogen, but liquefied gas is almost as dense as gasoline. Lawrence Livermore Labs drove a modified Honda more than 500 miles on a single tank of liquid hydrogen years ago.

    The challenge these days is simply building that last 50 feet of infrastructure between the feed for the thousands of filling stations that already have gas furnaces for heating and the meter on the plaza outside.

    #17
  18. JB

    make all gov’t vehicles run on natural gas. That includes public transportation buses and police cars and see how well it works before making the public buy something they don’t want.

    #18
  19. Dan X. McGraw

    The Honda Civic GX and Honda Civic Seden are pretty close in MPG. Honda Civic is 28 city/39 highway mpg. The Honda GX gets 27 city/ 38 highway. It can almost get to Houston to San Antonio without filling up, but you are correct that it wouldn’t make it there or back. However, the fuel will cost you about a $1.50 less so there are some savings there, but the Honda GX is about $10,000 more expensive.

    #19
  20. Peter

    JB, I actually want a CNG vehicle. I love the idea of filling up at home each night (required the compressor of course – which last time I checked was $3500).

    #20
  21. tboyinhouston

    buy a volt. When the batteries run out the engine charges them. Simple solution.

    #21
  22. Freedom

    The EPA makes it extremely difficult to convert a car to Nat Gas. (whcih would crreat jobs and demand.

    Even though the conversion produces cleaner emissions, they make you jump through regulatory hoops…hence costs to convert.

    A perfect example of a Government agency preventing what it is supposedly set up to do?

    #22