How many of you remember Billie Holiday, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, early Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee? No, this is not a test for Medicare. Your answers will not be screened by the IRS nor will your thoughts be recorded by voice- or thought-recognition machines. If you do remember these singers and musicians, you must also remember natural gas vehicles which were sold and (mostly happily) used in the 1930s, contrary to the impression given by some in the media that using natural gas as a power source for vehicles is a recent innovation and phenomenon.
What happened to natural gas as a fuel? Cheap oil (and the power of oil companies) overpowered it during World War II and became the primary consumer fuel choice. Decades of repetitive oil shortages combined with concern over U.S. oil dependency and growing environmental sensitivities to increased pollution and GHG emissions continue to make natural gas table conversation among advocates for alternative fuels. Regrettably, Detroit has not really joined the dialogue in a serious sustained way — a fact probably related to fear of consumer interest and related natural gas vehicle costs as well as profitability. Detroit’s historic alliance with oil companies also played a role in the U.S. hesitance to support open fuel markets.
Are we on the cusp, or as some call it the “prelude” to the cusp, of change? Recently, The Wall Street Journal announced that America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), stimulated by the increased production of natural gas and predictions of a 60-100 year supply of natural gas, will publically preview several natural gas-powered vehicles in Southern California. According to the Journal, ANGA will demonstrate about a half dozen natural gas-powered vehicles to demonstrate use of CNG in retrofitted popular vehicles. As relevant, given ANGA’s episodic marketing to date, the preview will be followed by an extensive educational campaign to generate consumer interest.
Almost simultaneous with the Journal’s article, Bloomberg BusinessWeek published an almost gushing piece about how shale gas juxtaposed with rising gasoline prices is changing the perceptions of investors and producers concerning the use of natural gas as a fuel for vehicles. In sum, according to the publication, there is new enthusiasm that natural gas-powered autos and trucks are the wave of the future and the future is starting now.
Not so fast! Natural gas has many advantages as a fuel. It is safer, burns cleaner and emits fewer pollutants, including GHG emissions. It records cheaper maintenance costs, is abundant and is less expensive than gasoline. But the need for storage capacity for natural gas cars to permit them to achieve 200–250 miles on a tank of CNG limits storage space compared to similar gasoline fueled vehicles with higher mileage totals per tank. While the numbers differ from news article to article and while there is consensus that they are increasing, there seems to be only about 1,500 natural gas fueling stations in the country, some of which only service fleets. Consumer fear of running out of natural gas, while driving long distances, has placed a premium on bi-fuel vehicles — vehicles that can run on natural gas and gasoline but adding additional costs to the purchase price. Natural gas cars cost about $8,000–$10,000 more than similar conventional cars and conversion packages now on the market range from $1,000 (small tank) to several thousand dollars. The big hang-ups concerning conversion are federal regulations concerning changes in fuel composition and EPA certification.
The nation has some way to go before natural gas as a fuel becomes really popular and natural gas cars are able to significantly penetrate the auto market. But where there is light, there is hope! Yes, natural gas is a fossil fuel and not perfect with respect to emissions. But saying this, it is important to note that natural gas is much better for the environment and emits less GHG as well as other pollutants than gasoline. It is also cheaper. As part of a transitional strategy taking us to renewables, conversion of older vehicles to natural gas and the increased ability to purchase flex-fuel vehicles using natural gas are in the public interest.
I have no relationship with ANGA, but if I did or was asked for advice, (without charging), I would suggest it support the coalition of 22 states fostered by Gov. Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado and Gov. Fallin (R) of Oklahoma. The group has agreed to replace outmoded conventional state vehicles with natural gas vehicles, if Detroit agrees to find ways to lower vehicle prices. The initiative, in which Detroit carmakers recently have concurred, will generate technology and marketing innovations that will ultimately lower the cost of natural gas vehicles to consumers. I would also (nicely) suggest to ANGA that they pressure Detroit and perhaps the government to speed up investment research to lower natural gas car costs, both in terms of new vehicles and conversion packages for existing cars. Finally, if I could, I would ask ANGA to work with environmental, business, foundation, and government leaders to develop consensus and support for transitional fuel policies and needed regulatory changes.
If I were a betting person, I would bet that natural gas could play as important or a more important role, in at least the near future, as a source or feedstock for alternative fuels than as a direct competitive marketplace replacement fuel. For example, methanol, a derivative of natural gas, does not require major additional costs either for new or converted existing cars to use efficiently, and the price now is far less expensive.
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