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Will Pittsburgh be the center of a CNG revolution?

The EQT compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling station in the Strip District of Pittsburgh may one day be remembered as the place where the CNG revolution began.

Located just north of downtown, The Strip is a gritty combination of commercial warehouses and aging factories being converted by gentrifying young professionals into housing. Somehow, that’s turned out to be the perfect combination for pioneering a market for CNG vehicles.

In 2011, EQT, a $14 billion gas company operating in the Marcellus Shale formation, opened up the first public-access CNG station in the Pittsburgh area. To date, more than half of the nation’s CNG stations have been private affairs designed to service fleet vehicles. UPS, FedEx, and Ryder Trucks have been in the lead.

But EQT saw a wider opportunity. Right away the company suggested that the many small companies in The Strip start converting to natural gas. Then it started targeting the growing number of local nonprofits. EQT also counted on the fact that some young professionals would be adventurous enough to experiment with a new fuel source. Finally, it set an example by converting 15% of its own fleet to CNG.

It worked. Two years later, EQT has been forced to add four new nozzles and is now planning a further expansion. The company is also working with various Pittsburgh organizations, public and private, to expand the reach of CNG throughout the region.

EQT is not the only competitor in the field. Chesapeake Energy Corporation, the nation’s second largest gas producer, plans to commit $1 billion by 2021 to encourage CNG adoption in western Pennsylvania. Southwestern Energy, the nation’s fourth largest gas producer, is also planning a similar initiative.

If all this is happening in Pittsburgh, it’s no accident. The city has a long tradition of developing fossil fuels, stretching back to the coalmines of the 19th century and Col. Drake’s oil well in nearby Titusville. But in this latest development, the mighty Marcellus is playing the leading role.

Last month, the output in the Marcellus surpassed 15 billion cubic feet per day, an increase of 400% over the last four years, according to figures released by the Energy Information Administration.

Moreover, production does not show any signs of slowing down. As the EIA reported last week:

The rig count in the Marcellus Region has remained steady at around 100 rigs over the past 10 months. Given the continued improvement in drilling productivity, which EIA measures as new-well production per rig, EIA expects natural gas production in the Marcellus Region to continue to grow. With 100 rigs in operation and with each rig supporting more than 6 million cubic feet per day in new-well production each month, new Marcellus Region wells coming online in August are expected to deliver over 600 million cubic feet per day (MMcf/d) of additional production. This production from new wells is more than enough to offset the anticipated drop in production that results from existing well decline rates, increasing the production rate by 247 MMcf/d.

In addition, the EIA recently projected that consumption of natural gas in the transport sector will rise by a factor of 20 over the next 25 years.

Natural Gas Consumption

Yet even the EIA’s optimistic predictions do not envision a very big role for natural gas in automobiles. Rail freight plays a bigger part than that envisioned for automobiles, which are grouped under the category of “light-duty vehicles.”

All this shows that natural gas is never going to make any real headway in substituting for foreign oil unless we start converting it to liquid fuel – methanol, ethanol, or butanol – that can be easily slotted into our current gasoline infrastructure.

But the potential is there. Last month Yuhuang Chemical, a subsidiary of the $5 billion Shandong Yuhuang Chemical Co., Ltd., of Shandong Province, China, announced plans to invest $1.85 billion in a methanol plant in St. James Parish, Louisiana that will produce 2 million tons of methanol annually by 2018. Right now, 80% of that methanol is targeted for export to a world market that currently consumes 65 million tons per year.

But if we keep working on methanol and ethanol conversion, more than a small portion of that might end up making it to that gas station in Pittsburgh. Or maybe someone will be inspired to build a methanol conversion plant right in the heart of the Marcellus itself.

CNG, Natural Gas sign, LNG

CNG moves ahead on all fronts

The effort to substitute compressed natural gas for foreign oil in our gas tanks is moving ahead on all fronts across the country, in scores of municipal departments that are converting their fleets, in new gas stations that are opening and with entrepreneurs who are looking for ways to speed up the conversion.

Leading the pack is Clean Energy Fuels, T. Boone Pickens’ effort to put the nation’s natural gas resources to work in the transport sector. Clean Energy Fuels has targeted long-distance, heavy-duty trucks, which tend to stay on the Interstate Highway System and can be services at massive truck stops. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Clean Energy Fuels is building stations in Pittston and Pottsville that will serve trucks on heavily the traveled I-81 and I-476. They are scheduled to open later this year.

But much of Clean Energy Fuels’ real success is coming from the fleet conversion for major shipping firms that rely heavily on truck transportation. The company has had particular success with UPS. Fueling depots were recently opened in Oklahoma City and Amarillo, Texas. The carrier E.J. Madison, LLC has deployed a fleet of 20 long-haul LNG trucks that will utilize a CEF network of stations that stretches from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida. Jacksonville is emerging as a hub of CEF activity as the company has opened a liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal there as well. LNG is more difficult to handle than compressed natural gas but has much greater energy density.

Rapidly expanding in Florida, CEF has just announced a grand opening of a CNG filling station that will service the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), which provides public transportation throughout the Tampa metropolitan area. The opening kicks off a plan to convert HART’s entire fleet of public services buses and vans to compressed gas.

Just last week Clean Energy Fuels CEO Andrew Littlefair was in the news telling The Motley Fool that Tesla’s electric cars will not be in competition with CEF’s efforts. “Tesla and electric vehicles are really great for certain applications,” he told interviewer Josh Hall. “But hauling 80,000 pounds of cargo, natural gas is really well suited for that.”

However, even if Clean Energy Fuels doesn’t think CNG can compete with electric at the passenger-car level, others do. Last week the Wawa convenience store chain announced it will partner with South Jersey Gas to open CNG fueling stations in southern New Jersey. “Compressed natural gas gives us an opportunity to increase the convenience we offer our customers and positions us for the future as well,” Brian Schaller, vice president of fuel for Wawa told the press. “We’re excited about the growth potential.” With 600 stores on the East Coast from New Jersey to Florida, Wawa has plenty of room to grow.

Pennsylvania is becoming a hotbed of compressed gas progress as the state seeks to take advantage of the Marcellus Shale. The state has adopted a funding program to help businesses convert. One of the first to take advantage is Houston-based Waste Management, which received an $806,000 grant from the State Department of Community & Economic Development to switch 25 of its waste and recycling collection vehicles to CNG. Pennsylvania-American Water Company has also announced plans to convert its fleet with a $315,000 state grant. American Water, the largest water utility in the state, operates out of Scranton.

Nebraska is a long way from any natural gas drilling but the Uribe Refuse Services company of Lincoln has announced it will convert its entire fleet of 17 trucks to natural gas over the next few years. The first trucks were displayed in the city last week on Earth Day.

Oklahoma is a big oil-and-gas producing state and is making a major effort to convert state vehicles to natural gas. In 2011 Gov. Mary Fallin joined 15 other states in a multi-state memorandum of understanding committing them to purchase NGVs for the state fleet. The state now has 400 CNG vehicles and is pushing the federal government to convert its fleet in the state as well. Oklahoma is building CNG gas stations to match and now stands third in the nation behind California and New York.

The natural gas industry is putting its shoulder to the wheel on this effort. The American Gas Association and America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) have teamed up to sponsor “Add Natural Gas (+NG),” an effort that is encouraging entrepreneurs and mechanics to convert ordinary passenger cars already on the road to CNG. “Fleets across the country are already using natural gas vehicles to save money and reduce emissions,” says the group’s website. “However, natural gas can be used to fuel any vehicle. To demonstrate this, we worked with automotive engineers to add natural gas as a fueling option for some of the most popular vehicles on the market today.”

Performance CNG LLC is a Michigan startup that has been inspired to take up the initiative. The company recently had a hybridized 2012 Ford Mustang GT demonstrated as part of +NG’s campaign and is currently trying to raise $55,000 in capital on Indiegogo, an international crowd funding site. More than half the money would go to EPA emissions testing.

Not everyone is convinced that CNG is the way to go. Clean Energy Fuel’s stock has done poorly since January, based on investor skepticism that its market is not that big and that some liquid natural-gas based fuel – methanol of butanol – will prove easier to handl

Is butanol the next big thing in biofuels?

Fuel Freedom recently learned about a man named David Ramey who drove his 1992 Buick Park Avenue from Blacklick, Ohio to San Diego using 100 percent butanol, without making any adjustments to his engine.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t be big news. But with the EPA now considering cutbacks in the 2014 biofuels mandate, some producers of ethanol are starting to turn to butanol as a way of getting around the limitations of the 10 percent “blend wall” that is threatening to limit ethanol consumption. This could be another breakthrough in our efforts to limit foreign oil.

Butanol is the alcohol form of butane gas, which has four carbons. Because it has a longer hydrocarbon chain, butane is fairly non-polar and more similar to gasoline than either methanol or ethanol. The fuel has been demonstrated to work in gasoline engines without any modification to the fuel chain or software.

Since the 1950s, most butanol in the United States has been manufactured from fossil fuels. But butanol can also be produced by fermentation, and that’s where another opportunity for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels exists.

The key is a bacterial strain called Clostridium acetobutylicum, also named the Weizmann organism for pioneering biological researcher Chaim Weizmann, who first used it to produce acetone from starch in 1916. The main use for the acetone was producing Cordite for gunpowder, but the butanol, a byproduct, eventually became more important.

Once set loose on almost any substratum, Clostridium acetobutylicum will produce significant amounts of butanol. Anything used to produce ethanol — sugar beets, sugar cane, corn grain, wheat and cassava, plus non-food crops such as switchgrass and guayule and even agricultural byproducts such as bagasse, straw and corn stalks — can all be turned into butanol. (Of course, not all of these are economical yet.)

Given the modern-day techniques of genetic engineering, researchers are now hard at work trying to improve the biological process. In 2011, scientists at Tulane University announced they had discovered a new strain of Clostridium that can convert almost any form of cellulose into butanol and is the only known bacterium that can do it in the presence of oxygen. They discovered this new bacterium in, of all places, the fecal matter of the plains zebra in the New Orleans Zoo.

DuPont and BP are planning to make butanol the first product of their joint effort to develop next-generation biofuels. In Europe, the Swiss company Butalco is developing genetically modified yeasts from the production of biobutanol from cellulosic material. Gourmet Butanol, a U.S. company, is developing a process that utilizes fungi for the same purpose. Almost every month, plans for a new butanol production plant are announced somewhere in the world. Many refineries that formerly produced bioethanol are now being retrofitted to produce biobutanol instead. DuPont says the conversion is very easy.

What are the possible drawbacks? Well, to match the combustion characteristics of gasoline, butanol will require slight fuel-flow increases, although not as great as those required for ethanol and methanol. Butanol also may not be compatible with some fuel system components. It can also create slight gas-gauge misreadings.

While ethanol and methanol have lower energy density than butanol, both have a higher octane rating. This means butanol would not be able to function as an octane-boosting additive, as ethanol and methanol are now doing. There have been proposals; however, the proposals are for a fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent butanol (E85B), which eliminate the fossil fuels from ethanol mixes altogether.

The only other objection that has been raised is that consumers may object to butanol’s banana-like smell. Other than that, the only problem is cost. Production of butanol from a given substratum of organic material is slightly lower than ethanol, although the increased energy content more than makes up for the difference.

Ironically, the EPA’s decision to cut back on the biofuels mandate for 2014 is now driving some refiners to convert to butanol, since its greater energy density will help it overcome the 10 percent “blend wall.”

“Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, an industry group, said butanol was a ‘drop-in’ fuel, able to be used with existing gasoline pipelines and other equipment because it does not have a tendency to take up water, as ethanol does,” The New York Times reported last October. “‘It’s more fungible in the existing infrastructure,’ he said. ‘You could blend it with gasoline and put it in a pipeline — no problem.’

“Butanol would also help producers get around the so-called blend wall, Mr. McAdams said…With the 10 percent limitation, ‘you don’t have enough gasoline to put the ethanol in,’ he said. ‘You don’t have that problem with butanol.’”

So here’s to butanol. It will be yet another big step in reducing our dependence in foreign fuels.

Can Butanol Be the New Ethanol?

Even as the ethanol industry is wobbling over the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to cut back on the ethanol mandate in 2014, a new candidate has emerged as an additive to gasoline – butanol.

Virgin Airways founder and CEO Richard Branson has announced that his Virgin Green Fund will be cosponsoring a groundbreaking butanol manufacturing plant in Luverne, Minnesota.  “Butanol is the future of renewable fuel,” said Branson, who is already using renewable jet fuel for his airline.  “It’s hugely versatile and can be used to produce gasoline fuel blends, rubbers, solvents, and plastics, which gives us scope to enter a range of markets,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg.

Corn ethanol now dominates the $26 billion gasoline additive market, drawing the glucose content out of 45 percent of the nation’s corn crop (the protein is fed to animals).  Branson’s butanol would use a similar feedstock – corn, sugar cane or cellulosic biomass – but would produce a fuel that has 84 percent of gasoline’s fuel density compared to ethanol’s 66 percent, although ethanol has a higher octane rating.  The implication is that butanol could be mixed at higher blends, giving it almost the same range as gasoline.

Both butanol and ethanol are made through a process that employs yeasts to ferments the glucose from organic material into alcohols.  Methanol, the simplest alcohol, has one carbon joined to a hydroxyl ion while ethanol has two carbons and butanol has four.  Octane, the principal ingredient in gasoline, has eight carbons without the hydroxyl ion.

As far a butanol is concerned, it’s not as if people haven’t tried this before.  Both BP and Royals Dutch Shell have experimented with producing butanol from organic material but have found the process harder than they anticipated.  “There is certainly a potential, but there have been quite considerable problems with the technology,” Clare Wenner, of the London-based Renewable Energy Association, told Bloomberg.  “It’s taking a lot longer than anybody thought years ago.”

Gevo’s plant in Minnesota, for instance, has been running at only two-thirds of its 18 million gallon-a-year capacity because of a contamination in its yeast fermenting facility in September 2012.  Similar instabilities in the microbial-based process have dogged the efforts to break down cellulose into simple molecules.  There operations can often be performed in the laboratory but become much more difficult when moved up to a commercial scale.

Branson is confident these obstacles can be overcome.  He’s already got Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla on board in Gevo and Total, the French oil company, has also taken a stake.  Together they have enlisted big ethanol producers such as Big River Resources and Siouxland Ethanol to commit to switching their manufacturing process to butanol.  Butamax Advanced Biofuel, another Minnesota refiner funded by Dupont and BP, is also in the process of retrofitting its ethanol plant to butanol.  Taken together, these facilities would be able replace 1 billion of the 14 billion gallons of ethanol now being produced every year.

Whether this would be enough to make a bigger dent in America’s oil import budget remains to be seen.  The 14 billion gallons of ethanol currently substitutes for 10 percent of our gasoline and about 6 percent of our total oil consumption.  The Environmental Protection Agency has limited ethanol additives to 15 percent of the blend, mainly to protect older cars.  (In Iowa, newer cars are running on an 85 percent blend.)  Now the reduction in the 2014 mandate is making the ethanol industry nervous about overcapacity.  Butanol is less corrosive of engines and the 16 percent blend could give it an edge.

On another front, T. Boone Pickens’ Clean Energy Fuels announced this week that it may turn a profit for the first time since its founding in 1997.  Clean Fuels is concentrating on supplying compressed natural gas for trucks, signing major contracts with Frito-Lay, Proctor & Gamble, United Parcel Service and Ryder.  It is also attempting to set up a series of filling stations on the Interstate Highway System.  The use of CNG requires an entirely new infrastructure, however, rather than the easy substitution of liquid and butanol.

The dark horse here is methanol, which is liquid and fits easily into our present infrastructure but would be synthesized from natural gas.  Somehow, methanol has not attracted the attention of Branson’s biofuels and Pickens’ CNG.     All of these efforts hold promise, however, and would make a huge dent in our annual $350 billion bill for oil imports, which constitutes the bulk of our $450 billion trade deficit.  So good luck to all and may the best fuel win – or all of them, for that matter.