Houston group seeks to put US on the road to natural gas

Natural gas companies are trying to get more people using their fuel in cars and trucks, and the University of Houston is helping them out.

Four companies — Anadarko Petroleum Corp., Southwestern Energy, CenterPoint Energy and Apache — initially teamed up with the university four years ago to begin persuading the public to use natural gas in vehicles. They formed the Greater Houston Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance, which has 25 members and has tried to explain to companies how natural gas can help them.

The group’s new president, Bill Epling, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the university, spoke with FuelFix about how the alliance is making progress. These are edited excerpts from the interview:

FuelFix: Why is promoting natural gas for cars and trucks a worthy objective?

Epling: In the automotive industry and in big business in general, there’s just a lot of inertia, usually. And in this case, because of the new energy revolution that has occurred over the last four years because of the shale gas boom that’s occurred in Texas and other parts of the United States, there is an abundance of natural gas. Natural gas has been used in power plant applications for a long time and that’s been a growing area, but now with this newfound abundance of cheap energy, the next obvious target is vehicles because so much of our petroleum is in vehicle applications. So it’s an obvious goal to be able to use natural gas in vehicles. There’s a lot of challenges associated with making the public aware of advantages and disadvantages. Let’s face it, we’ve used gasoline engines now for a long time. Diesel engines are used for kind of heavy-duty applications and some light duty, but the inertia there is going to be hard to break.

FuelFix: In whose interest is this goal of promoting natural gas for vehicles?

Epling: If there’s a company that’s only focused on oil, then there may not be any advantage, but I think it’s going to be an across-the-board one. Of course the natural gas suppliers have a vested interest. But it’s also a cleaner-burning fuel. You don’t have as much of a problem with nitrous oxide emissions, you have significantly lower problems with particulate emissions. You do have some issues still with methane emissions that companies are going to have to deal with if this does take off, but I think the technology exists for them to do that. So in that sense, you have a cleaner-burning fuel that’s being used, and that’s one of the main advantages, and then in terms of the fuels themselves, they are all hydrocarbon-based fuels, so there are some similarities.

FuelFix: So one benefit is for companies selling it, and the other is for the benefit of the world and climate?

Epling: Yes, there’s the green side of it. The other thing is for some people it’s just practical. Maybe not for the general public, but there’s some fleets out there that if you go down to Ssouth Texas there’s a lot of natural gas sitting in a pipeline right there. Well, you can fill up your vehicle. You have a central location right there in order to do that. So you’ll have some of that as well. And if we look around, a lot of large independent organizations’ fleets — I’ll use Wal-Mart and Lowes and places like that as an example — have their own fueling stations that they are using for some of their vehicles that they have converted to run on natural gas.

FuelFix: How does your organization promote natural gas for vehicles?

Epling: We want to bring together vendors and customers. There’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario right now: I can buy a natural gas vehicle, but where do I fill it up? I can build a natural gas fueling station, but where are the vehicles that will come and fill up? So there’s a little bit of a game right now. For a wider audience, we need to think about putting in more fueling stations so people will buy the vehicles. And we’re starting to see fueling stations pop up around the area.

FuelFix: What is a next step you’d like to push to expand use of natural gas in vehicles?

Epling: We are trying to facilitate meetings and workshops for potential customers, typically fleet owners, and showing them what it takes to convert engines over to natural gas, what are the benefits associated with converting them to natural gas, what are the things they need to think about if they are going to do that. It’s still a matter of education.


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