The pros and cons of natural-gas vehicles

Clean. Abundant. Cheap. Domestic. What's not to like about natural gas? So why not use it to power a car?

Most Americans think of natural gas as a fuel source to heat their homes or run their clothes dryers or stoves. But natural-gas cars have been zipping around foreign highways for decades. According to the industry group NGV Global, there are more than 15.2 million natural-gas vehicles on the road worldwide.

However, natural gas has been slow to gain traction in U.S. passenger vehicles. Nationwide, there are only 120,000 natural-gas vehicles, or NGVs.

Game changers

The recent discoveries of massive natural-gas reserves in the U.S. may be a game changer, says Rich Kolodziej, president of Washington, D.C.-based Natural Gas Vehicles for America, or NGVAmerica, a trade association for the natural-gas vehicle industry.

NGVs could help to break the U.S. free of dependence on foreign oil, Kolodziej says. They are also better for the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, NGVs pave the potential to emit 25 percent less greenhouse gases than diesel-powered vehicles.

Best of all, natural gas is cheaper -- $1.50 to $2 less per gasoline gallon equivalent, according to NGVAmerica.

Those significant savings have not gone unnoticed by businesses and municipalities.

Today, 40 percent of new garbage trucks and 25 percent of new buses in the U.S. can run on natural gas, Kolodziej says. "In the city of Los Angeles, all the buses are now running on natural gas," he says.

The potential of natural gas to fuel our cars has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. government. In February 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a $30 million competition aimed at finding ways to "harness our abundant supplies of domestic natural gas for vehicles."

The money has since been awarded to 13 research firms, which are working on breakthrough technologies to bring NGVs to the general public.

Advantages of NGVs

For the average motorist, there are good reasons to switch.

  • Safety: Lighter-than-air natural gas dissipates in an accident -- a safer scenario than flammable liquid fuel.
  • Efficiency: While similar models of natural-gas and gasoline-powered cars get the same miles per gallon, you'll spend a lot less filling up the tank. Natural gas is about half the price of gasoline. You'll also need to change the car's oil less frequently because of the cleaner-burning fuel, says Okhtay Darian, an energy engineer for Associated Renewable Inc., an energy consulting firm in New York.

"A regular gasoline-powered car averages 32 miles per gallon while a CNG-powered car averages 43 miles per gallon," Darian says, referring to compressed natural gas.

  • Home advantage: Eighty percent to 90 percent of the natural gas we use comes from domestic sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
  • Similar to driving a gasoline-powered car: says drivers won't notice any difference except that "acceleration is typically slower."
  • Drive in the fast lane: In some states, NGVs can use a high-occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lane anytime.

Downsides of NGVs

Before you run out to buy an NGV, consider these limitations.

  • Limited options: Only one all-natural-gas-vehicle model, the Honda Civic Natural Gas, is available in the U.S. although Ford, General Motors and Ram have recently announced new 2013 pickup truck models that are bi-fuel. That is, they run on gasoline and natural gas.
  • More expensive: The NGV Honda is about $5,000 more than its gasoline-powered cousin.
  • Limited driving range: The NGV Honda can only go 220 miles without refueling. That's 130 miles less than a gasoline-powered Civic.
  • Limited fueling stations: There are about 1,000 natural gas fueling stations across the U.S., but only 536 are available for public use, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuel Data Center website -- and the majority are clustered around major metropolitan hubs.
  • Home refueling is expensive: A refueling device costs from $2,000 to $5,000, plus installation. And, it takes overnight to refuel.
  • Natural gas is a nonrenewable fossil fuel: The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that there's enough natural gas to last us about 90 years. But it is not an inexhaustible supply, although NGVAmerica's Kolodziej says the industry has the technology to make biomethane -- chemically identical to natural gas -- from renewable sources such as agricultural waste.

Not practical for cars?

Not everyone thinks putting more natural-gas vehicles on the road is a good thing.

While NGVs are ideal for fleets where refueling is done in a central location, there are "serious challenges in spreading NGVs to the general public," because of the enormous expense to create a nationwide refueling infrastructure, says David Friedman, deputy director of the Clean Vehicles Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization in Cambridge, Mass.

"This (refueling) infrastructure could become obsolete as soon as cleaner technologies emerge," he says, adding that in foreign countries where natural-gas cars are popular, the fueling infrastructure has been built using huge government subsidies.

Plus, the economics of buying an NGV don't add up. They are thousands of dollars more expensive than a gasoline-powered or hybrid car, plus you'll be shelling even more out to install a home refueling system, Friedman says.

"You'd be better off with a hybrid," he says.

Friedman adds that while NGVs' greenhouse emissions are better than gasoline, these cars are still carbon-emitters.

"We'd be better off on using our natural-gas resources to displace coal to generate electricity and run (zero-emission) electric cars," he says.

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