Thursday, November 13, 2014
Natural Gas Vehicles Prepare to Hit the Road -- a contribution from Beth Kelly
Natural Gas Vehicles Prepare to Hit the Road
Natural gas plays a large role in America’s green, “self-sufficient” energy plans for the future. Using the controversial practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, water and chemical compounds are used to blast shale rock and release the gas stored within. Cleaner and cheaper than gasoline, natural gas can be used as a fuel for vehicles as well as for a plethora of residential uses. Consequently, more American drivers than ever are considering an alternative to the internal combustion engine. Yet as with gasoline powered vehicles, there are both positive and negative elements to their use.
Natural gas originates beneath the surface of the Earth in ancient geological formations. In 1872, a five-mile pipeline transmitted the first recorded natural gas from Titusville to Newton, Pennsylvania. By 1891, a pipeline over 100 miles long connected Chicago to Indiana gas fields. Today, major natural gas-producing countries including the United States, Canada, Russia, Iran, Indonesia, and Norway. A natural gas vehicle, or NGV, is an “alternative” fuel automobile that uses either compressed natural gas or liquified natural gas for power. NGV’s have been marketed in recent years as safe, environmentally friendly vehicles.
With the price differential between natural gas and gasoline greater than ever, the interest in natural gas vehicles by both consumers and policymakers is growing at a record pace. From massive trucking fleets to family vehicles and city buses, NGV’s are increasingly versatile - even branching out into the luxury market, trying to court customers with new renditions of luxury sedans and vintage muscle cars.
Natural gas as a fuel for automobiles has always been an alluring alternative, if not a very practical one. But that is poised to change: notable benefits, beyond mere cost, are widening the NGV market. First and foremost, the environmental benefits are hard to ignore. Clean, odorless, colorless and tasteless, natural gas produces far fewer greenhouse gases, helping to reduce air pollution. In addition, the cost of compressed natural gas fuel (CNG) can be as low as half that of a gallon of gas if you use a home refueling device, and at commercial stations, the cost is still much less than gasoline. Consisting mostly of methane (CH4), it's extracted from natural gas wells or in conjunction with crude oil production. Beyond an alternative vehicle fuel, natural gas is an economic and instant fuel for heating water and homes, as well as powering furnaces, stoves and home appliances.
That said, despite being a cleaner, cheaper alternative to diesel or gasoline powered automobiles, NGV’s present their own set of problems to drivers as well as the environment. For example, these cars have less horsepower than “average” vehicles, and as a result cannot travel as fast. They also have a shorter driving range - due to lower energy content in the natural gas - and require more frequent fueling. Therein lies another issue: there are few refueling stations for natural gas cars, and some are not even open to the public. The pumps are also more difficult to use, and may be unfamiliar to many drivers.
The fracking process also poses a threat to the success of natural gas powered vehicles. So far 100 U.S. municipalities have banned fracking due to concerns about groundwater contamination from chemical spills or leakage, as well as air pollution and other issues. Tests from areas around fracking sites have revealed high levels of benzene, formaldehyde and other cancer-causing chemicals in the air. Recent reports have also shown increases in health problems afflicting people who live near fracking sites.
Growth in the popularity of NGV’s continues, however, with countries such as India, China, Thailand and Brazil solidifying their already-robust alternative fuel vehicle markets. But in the U.S. and Germany, where they remain a niche market, things are projected to pick up speed soon. Navigant Research determined that the total number of light-duty NGVs on roads worldwide will grow to 39.8 million in 2023. Whether or not you’re a proponent of natural gas and natural gas powered vehicles, one thing is for sure: the need for a viable, alternative-energy vehicles is imminent.