Natural Gas Vehicles: Cleaner, Less Expensive Alternative Power Source

The 2013 Denver Auto Show – March 20-24 at the Colorado Convention Center – will have a major focus on cleaner, greener vehicles. New this year will be a display of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) vehicles, sponsored by America’s Natural Gas Alliance.

CNG passenger cars aren’t widely available right now, but commercial fleets have been adopting this fuel source for several years. Between government mandates for higher fuel efficiency and lower emissions, and the increased availability of domestically produced CNG, it appears poised to take off as a transportation fuel source. We’re hearing from manufacturers that CNG passenger cars and light trucks are just over the horizon.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has been a leader in this area, formally agreeing with the governors of Oklahoma, Wyoming and Pennsylvania since late 2011 to try to persuade auto manufacturers to develop “a functional and affordable . . . fleet of natural gas vehicle that will also meet public demand.” Since then, a total of 22 states have joined in.

Why the interest? The U.S. is a major natural gas producer and current prices for CNG are significantly lower than gasoline, so a substantial consumer switch to natural gas would make America more energy independent.

Natural gas is cleaner than gasoline. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, CNG can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 30 percent, carbon monoxide by up to 90 percent, sulphur dioxide by as much as 99 percent, nitrogen oxide by as much as 95 percent, and particulates by up to 90 percent.

An added plus is that cleaner-burning fuel results in reduced engine wear, so CNG vehicles may cost less to operate and maintain, making their overall life-cycle costs lower. That’s a major reason commercial fleet operators have been switching. Ford, GM and Chrysler have had great success with fleet sales of ¾-ton trucks. Ford reports a 350 percent increase in natural gas-prepped vehicles since 2009.

This kind of success is prompting an expansion into pickups. Chrysler’s Ram 1500 pickup is already in fleet service, arriving in dealerships last June, and Ram dealers are selling CNGs now – or soon will be – to retail customers. Additionally General Motors and Ford are due to have factory-developed CNG-powered vehicles in showrooms yet this year. Right now, the Honda Civic GX is the only passenger car available for retail sale. It’s recognized as the cleanest internal-combustion vehicle available on the market.

CNG-powered vehicles share the same technology as gasoline-powered vehicles, meaning no major re-tooling will be required when vehicle manufacturers take the plunge into passenger-vehicle production. This makes “dual-fuel” vehicles an attractive possibility. These vehicles can switch seamlessly between gasoline and natural gas, thereby eliminating “range anxiety” for consumers. Dual-fuel vehicles would have conventional gas tanks with an additional small CNG tank, requiring little or no vehicle design modification. A small CNG tank that small could be incorporated into existing automobile designs and as new models are rolled out larger tanks could be accommodated. A four-gallon CNG tank provides an approximate range of 150 miles at 25 mpg.

Dual-fuel vehicles also could be the transitional step to widespread retail CNG availability. As the number of places to refuel CNG vehicles grows, Jon Haubert of the Western Energy Alliance points out, “Vehicle owners will be able to rely on existing retail stations so they can refuel with either gasoline or natural gas. Utilizing the existing network of conveniently located retail refueling stations makes a lot of sense for both automakers and early adopters of CNG because it relieves the concern of where to fill up.” Hardly anyone remembers now that Henry Ford started the American transportation revolution by building Model Ts before gas stations were commonplace.

One other exciting and convenient solution to the “where to fill up” problem is on the horizon. Several major appliance manufacturers are working on home-CNG fueling stations that would tap into your residential natural gas line. It would be a more lengthy fill-time than at a retail fueling station – probably requiring several hours – but you could hook up when you roll into your garage at night, confident you’d have a full tank of CNG in the morning.

Along with the CNG vehicles on display at the Denver Auto Show show-goers can see a total of 500-plus other vehicles of all types from 25 manufacturers as well as aftermarket suppliers. Regular admission to the Denver Auto Show is $10.00 for adults, $5.00 for children (6-12), and children under six are free.

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About timwjackson

Working every day for a better Colorado.
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