Natural gas vehicles take the halfway route

In the early 1990s, California tried to force the introduction of electric cars by requiring that auto companies produce a zero-emissions vehicle in order to remain in the state. The result was Chevrolet’s EV1, which everyone agreed was the best electrical vehicle that could be built at the time. Owners loved them, but somehow the effort didn’t take off.

The infrastructure simply wasn’t in place. The car only had a 70-mile range and drivers spent much of their time worrying about their next charge. Many EV1s ended up on the lots of rental agencies where they attracted little attention. All this, of course, was interpreted by some people as the fault of the oil companies and the auto industry, which didn’t push the case hard enough. The award-winning documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” made this argument.

Then three years later, Toyota introduced the Prius, a gas-electric hybrid that gave drivers some breathing room. It was a spectacular success. By not trying to make the technological transition in one giant leap, the Prius introduced drivers to the advantages of electric propulsion without asking them to sacrifice anything in terms of a nerve-wracking search for a refill. In fact, when Toyota brought out the Prius it deliberately left off a home charger so that buyers would not associate it with the failed EV1. Not until several years later did the company release a plug-in hybrid. In both cases, the Prius has been the most successful of all hybrids.

Natural gas vehicles seem determined to avoid the same mistake. This year both Ford and General Motors are releasing commercial NGVs in their light-truck and sedan lines. But they are taking care to make them bi-fuel vehicles that run on both gasoline and natural gas, although they are expensive. (Both companies have been making tri-fuel — gasoline, ethanol and CNG — for many years in Brazil.) 

First out of the box will be the immensely popular Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra, both full-sized pickups that sold 480,000 and 184,000 last year, respectively, the highest sales mark since 2007. GM is offering bi-fuel versions for every cabin configuration. The 2015 model will offer a 16-gallon gasoline tank and a 17-gallon-equivalent compressed natural gas tank. When both are filled, the truck will have a remarkable range of 650 miles.

Along with that, GM will be releasing a bi-fuel Chevrolet Impala to introduce ordinary drivers to the advantages of natural gas. The Impala will feature an 18.5-gallon gasoline tank and a 7.7-GGE CNG tank. The result will be a 500-mile range.

Not to be outdone, Ford has already introduced a bi-fuel version of the immensely successful F-150 half-ton pickup truck. Released only last November, the company managed to sell 15,000 vehicles across eight models in 2013. That beat 2012 sales by 25 percent. When combined with its conventional gas tank, the CNG boost gives the F-150 an astounding 700-mile range, beating the Silverado by 100 miles. Unfortunately, the price differential for all these NGV models will be about $10,000.

But motorists could see a 2-3-year payback if the price gap between gasoline and its natural gas equivalent holds up. Right now it has settled around $1.50 gap per gallon and has remained there for almost five years. Give motorists the opportunity to save almost half the price on a gallon of gas is bound to make the new bi-fuel models more attractive.

Other developments are also moving in the direction of a transition to natural gas for high mileage vehicles. In 2012, ARPA-E, the federal government’s program for advanced energy research, awarded $2.3 million to GE Global Research, Chart Industries and the University of Missouri to design a gas refueling station for homeowners. GE already makes a $5,000 medium-sized refueling kit for commercial businesses called “CNG in a Box” that takes gas out of the utility pipes and compresses it for fleet vehicles. The target price for the scaled-down homeowner version is $500. The consortium has set a release date for later this year, at which point we’ll find out if they’ve been successful. The launching of such a cheap conversion system that would allow homeowners to tap the natural gas pipes in their house to refuel their cars would revolutionize the whole NGV effort.

Of course there’s always another possibility — converting our abundant natural gas supplies to ethanol or methanol that would fit right into our current gasoline delivery system. Switching to liquids would not require a new on-board gas tank but would simply involve adjusting existing engines so they could run on a variety of liquids — the “flex-fuel” system. Giving motorists the widest variety of choices would let them experiment with different strategies without having to make a giant leap over some technological chasm. That’s what California learned twenty years ago when it tried to rush the introduction of the electric car and the lesson still holds good today.

Garage filling stations — are we getting close?

One of the greatest appeals of switching to an alternative-fuel vehicle — electric, compressed natural gas or hydrogen — is saving money and freeing yourself from the clutches of foreign oil. But another is being able to supply your own fuel from a garage filling station where you may even be able to generate some of it yourself.

All this takes on a certain air of necessity when you realize that most of the infrastructure for recharging or refilling is not yet in place. In many cases, the garage may be the best option right now. So let’s run down some of the different options available and see how they stack up as being economical and practical.

Let’s start with the easiest one — electric cars. There are three types of chargers available to owners of a Prius, Leaf or Chevy Volt. The first is a Level 1 “trickle” charger, which is just a basic 120-volt line that plugs into any three-pronged outlet. This is the standard plug-in for all EVs. The problem is the amount of time it takes for a complete charge. For the Leaf, it takes close to 21 hours, which means that you can’t even do it overnight. For hybrids there’s some leeway since you can always revert to the gas motor and do some brake recharging as well. But if you’re planning to rely completely on a home outlet, you’d better have a second car.

More favorable is a Level 2 240-volt circuit. If you have an electric clothes dryer in your house, you’re already equipped. If you don’t have a 240-volt system at home, installation is easy enough. It will require a 40-amp circuit breaker, which may need a permit from the local building department, but the job is simple enough. Recharging time will be cut to less than eight hours, enough for an overnight. puts the price at $600 -$700, although vendors such as ClipperCreek lists some for less.

If you really want to go really high-tech, you can move up to a Level 3 480-volt power supply that can give you an 80 percent charge in half an hour. The whole package costs $30,000, but with federal tax breaks and some help from the car companies, you can get it down to $10,000. Nissan offers a unit for $9,900. You could probably recoup some of the costs by recharging EVs for your neighbors, but you might need a zoning variance.

So how about compressed natural gas? What are the options there?

The Honda Civic is the only CNG passenger vehicle being sold in the United States. (Most of the progress has been with delivery trucks and long-haul trailers.) There are currently 1,000 CNG filling stations across the country, but half of them belong to companies that are using them for their fleets. Only about 500 are available to the public. So, unless you’re traveling along an Interstate and can make it to one of Clean Energy Fuels’ new truck stops, you’re going to have a hard time.

Refilling at home, however, isn’t all that impractical. More than half the residences in the country are equipped with natural gas for home heating, cooking or hot water. The trick is to get a device that can compress this household gas to be used in your car.

Honda originally offered a home refueling kit, the Phill, which costs $4,500 and could do a refill overnight. Honda stopped making the offer after 2012; however, due to concerns about the widely varying quality of non-commercial gas and the possibility of home devices allowing moisture to collect in the fuel system. For those willing to take the chance, the Phill is still available from its manufacturer, BRC FuelMaker. The question is, “Why is it so expensive when the same pump would cost 10% if it filled air bottles?” There is a regulatory review needed to reduce the cost.

Seeking to promote the technology, the Department of Energy (DoE) handed out grants a few years ago to encourage companies to develop affordable home systems. Now one of them may have come through. The Eaton Corporation of Cleveland, already prominent in the field of electrical charging stations, announced in 2012 that it plans to market a CNG home refueling device by 2015. “The system will use liquid to act as a piston in compressing the gas,” says Chris Roche, vice president at Eaton’s Innovation Center. “We have also developed an innovative heat exchange technology that will improve efficiency and cut costs dramatically.” Eaton is aiming at production costs of $500, which means the device could sell for less than $1,000. GoNatural, a Salt Lake City company, has also promised to have a product available by 2015. “It could be a game changer,” said New York Times reporter Paul Stenquist, in profiling CNG home compressors last October.

So, what about hydrogen? Is there anything available there? Hydrogen is very difficult to deal with. It is the smallest atom and will leak through just about anything. It’s hard to store and transport and must be kept under high pressure.

The upside, however, is the possibility of generating your own hydrogen, particularly from renewable resources. This can be done with simple electrolysis of water, which only requires an electric current. If you can generate that current with wind or solar energy, then you are essentially powering your car for free.

Making it happen is probably a long way off, although people are working on it. HyperSolar, Inc., a Santa Barbara company, has announced “proof of concept” of a method for generating solar hydrogen. “Using our self-contained particle in a low cost plastic bag, we have successfully demonstrated our ability to mimic photosynthesis to produce renewable hydrogen from virtually any source of water using the power of the Sun,” said CEO Tim Young while making the announcement. Horizon Fuel Cells, a Singapore company, released a “desktop” hydrogen generator in 2010 that generates hydrogen through electrolysis from any power source. It sells for $250 on Amazon. Although the company is targeting much smaller fuel-cell devices, it could eventually scale up to handle quantities needed to run a hydrogen fuel cell car

Altogether for cutting loose from the local gas station, electric vehicles are the best bet for now. But natural gas in its many forms — including methanol — are moving up and renewable hydrogen may be on the horizon. With home-generating devices proliferating, it is not hard to see all this eventually making a dent in our consumption of fossil fuels.