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Should Americans Drive Natural Gas Cars?

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By Johnny Bevers

Petroleum-based fuels are what millions of Americans rely on each day to get them to where they need to go.  But, the market is so reliant on these petroleum-based fuels that when prices go up, Americans are hit hard.  This growing concern for rising gas prices, limited supply and a struggling economy has moved more scientists back into the lab to find better, more efficient alternative fuels.  Electrical vehicles were debuted over a decade ago, but their technology is still limited with limitations on batteries.  Charging stations are burdensome for drivers and electric vehicles, while energy-efficient, are not as practical for most American drivers.

Natural gas powers most homes, factories and commercial buildings in the United States.  It is an abundant resource that is a critical component in the growth of the U.S. economy.  By driving a compressed natural gas vehicle, also referred to as a CNG, smog can be reduced, greenhouse gasses eliminated and the country can stop depending on foreign resources for petroleum.

According to the Natural Gas Coalition, there are currently 130,000 natural gas powered vehicles on the road in the United States and over 2.5 million on the roads worldwide.  Gas powered vehicles still outnumber CNG vehicles 1,100 to 1.

How Natural Gas Works

two hands holding a natural gas burner

Natural gas consists of hydrocarbons (mainly methane).  Most natural gas in the United States comes from the United States, which drastically reduces the U.S.’s reliance on other countries.  When natural gas is used to power vehicles, it is compressed and stored in a high-pressure safety tank located in the car’s trunk.  Natural gas vehicles are referred to as “dedicated systems”, because they are designed to only run on natural gas.  But, there are some bi-fuel vehicles out there that still run on petroleum-based fuels as well as natural gas fuels.  Most recently was Ford’s introduction of the F-150 which runs on either regular unleaded gasoline or natural gas.  This gives the vehicle driver an alternative should they not be able to find a natural gas station which are still somewhat limited.

The Availability of Natural Gas for CNG Vehicles

natural-gas-vehicle-in-Netherland

As of right now, the availability of natural gas vehicles for consumers to purchase in the United States is limited.  Honda was the first manufacturer to release their own CNG vehicle, known as the Honda Civic GX.  That same vehicle is rated as the cleanest combustion vehicle available to consumers.  Currently there are 40 different manufacturers in the United States selling CNG vehicles, including:  Ford, General Motors, Honda, Volvo and Toyota.  The two manufacturers that are offering the best technology, however, are Chrysler and Honda.  It is estimated that in the next 20 years CNG vehicles will be more available, have more features and be more comparable (if not better) than gasoline-powered vehicles.

There are, however, a lot of CNG conversion companies out there that can help car owners convert their petroleum-run vehicle into a natural gas vehicle.  But, most conversion services are designed for fleets, taxis and commercial vehicles.  There are only a handful right now that offer their services to private consumers.

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There are hundreds of natural gas fueling stations located across the United States for CNG and converted vehicles.  Most of these fueling stations are located on long-haul trucking routes, but more are starting to show up at traditional gas stations.  Some consumers have found it is easier to refuel at home using a small fueling appliance.  The U.S. Department of Energy has a station location finder tool on their website to help consumers locate fueling stations in their area.

It is expected that more light-duty (passenger style) CNG vehicles will hit the market very soon.  Because there is a growing awareness in the United States regarding the benefits and costs of natural gas, the consumer demand has risen considerably over the past few years; thus, encouraging manufacturers to start creating their own CNG vehicles for purchase.

How Much Does It Cost to Drive a CNG Vehicle?

natural-gas-car

The initial purchase of a CNG vehicle is much higher than a traditional vehicle.  But, that extra price does pay for itself in savings.  Natural gas is cheaper than traditional gasoline.  On average, consumers will spend one-third less on natural gas refueling than traditional gasoline refueling.

For example, a vehicle that gets 30 miles per gallon and drives 20 miles per day could see an average of $463.00 per year in gasoline savings.  If that same vehicle averaged 70 miles per day in commutes, they would save $1631 on average per year in refueling costs.

The estimated savings on CNG-based fuel is about $2.00 per gallon.  Therefore, if you were spending $3.95 per gallon of gasoline, you would be spending about $1.95 per gallon for natural gas.  But, there are additional savings opportunities with CNG vehicles.  CNG vehicles have less maintenance requirements, require less oil changes and are more cost-efficient to own in general.

Incentives for Driving a CNG Vehicle

The United States is slowly promoting CNG vehicles.  Some state have already adopted incentive programs for drivers in CNG vehicles.  For example, most states offer HOV stickers free to drivers of CNG vehicles.  Incentives to vary by region; therefore, consumers are encouraged to check with their state’s department of energy to see if there are any applicable incentives for driving CNG vehicles.

The Performance of a Compressed Natural Gas Vehicle

A lot of consumers worry that compressed natural gas vehicles are efficient, which means they won’t perform.  While electrical cars have proven they are poor performers compared to petroleum-based vehicles, CNG vehicles are a viable competitor.  They perform just as well as gasoline-powered cars.  The only difference with a CNG vehicle is the range of miles in between refueling. Gasoline vehicles can drive longer distances before needing to refuel.

The Environmental Factor

CNG fueled delivery truck

Natural gas vehicles can potentially reduce smog emissions of Carbon Monoxide by 70 percent, reduce Non-Methane Organic Gas by 87 percent, and reduce Oxides of Nitrogen by 87 percent.  They emit 20 percent less greenhouse gases than their gasoline competitors.  Also, natural gas is nontoxic and cannot contaminate ground water like gasoline can.

The Advantages of CNG Vehicles

There are numerous advantages to CNG vehicles.  Some of those advantages include, but are not limited to:

  • CNG vehicles are environmentally friendly.  They emit little to no pollutants and natural gas is one of the cleanest burning fossil fuels in the world.
  • Natural gas prices are consistent and steady, compared to gasoline and other petroleum-based fuels.
  • Natural gas is abundant, convenient and the chances of a shortage are very low.
  • There are currently over 1,300 NGV fueling stations in the United States with more added each year.
  • CNG vehicles have lower maintenance costs and significant fuel savings each year.
  • Natural gas has an octane rating of 130 — making it superior to any type of gasoline on the market.
  • CNG vehicles have less vapor locking and knocking.
  • CNG vehicles are safer than gasoline-vehicles.  Their tanks are thicker than traditional gasoline tanks and there has not been a rupture of a natural gas tank in the United States for over two years.  The Disadvantages of CNG Vehicles

As with any type of new technology, there are bound to be disadvantages.  It is up to a consumer whether these disadvantages outweigh the advantages.

  • On average, a CNG vehicle will cost $4,000 to $8,000 more to purchase than a gasoline-powered vehicle.
  • Natural gas vehicles are not as roomy as gasoline-powered vehicles, and have to give up cargo space for their natural gas tank.
  • Natural gas vehicles cannot drive as far as gasoline-powered vehicles.
  • While natural gas is in abundance, it is still not a renewable source of energy.  Therefore, shortages could happen years from now.  However, experts have stated that they do not see shortages occurring in most consumer’s lifetimes.  So, Should Americans Switch to CNG Vehicles?

But, as more manufacturers release their own CNG models and more refueling stations start to develop, it is likely that CNG vehicles will be the wave of the future in the U.S. and across the globe.

naturalGasVehicleGrowth

There are numerous resources available to American consumers that are considering transitioning from gasoline-powered vehicles to CNG-powered vehicles.  While there are many benefits to making the switch, the limited availability and versatility of CNG vehicles out there is likely the reason more Americans haven’t switched.  Also, with the limited availability of natural gas fueling stations (only 1300 stations for natural gas compared to an estimated 126,000 gas stations in the U.S.) those who buy CNG vehicles will be limited as to where they can refuel.

The video below shows off the Honda Civic NGV.

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