10 Things You Should Know About Natural Gas Vehicles

T. Boone Pickens laid out his grand ‘Pickens Plan’ on Tuesday (accompanied by a Web 2.0 media blitz) with the suggestion that natural gas could provide over a third of U.S. transportation fuels. While natural gas vehicles (NGVs) have been used for awhile in city-owned car and bus fleets, and even a selectively sold consumer car, the Honda Civic GX, natural gas hasn’t been getting as much attention as other forms of alternative vehicles recently from the big car companies and innovative startups. Electric vehicle-to-grid technology and biofuel vehicles have both received a lot more attention from the investment community, the media and interested entrepreneurs.

But there are a lot of opportunities — as well as a variety of drawbacks — for vehicles powered by natural gas. Here’s our take on 10 things you should know about natural gas-powered vehicles:

1). Infrastructure bottleneck: Like the “hydrogen highway” compressed natural gas vehicles need fueling stations. According to the natural gas vehicle trade group the Natural Gas Vehicles for America (NGVA) there are over 1,100 stations in the U.S. That might sound like a lot, but only half are available to the public, and compare that to the around 200,000+ U.S. gas stations. The U.S. would need a lot more natural gas stations to power a third of its vehicles. Who’s going to be the first to make that investment?

2). Greenhouse Gas Reductions: The NGVA also says that natural gas vehicles produce 20 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than a standard gas vehicle. That’s about the same as corn-based ethanol, which according to the EPA has a greenhouse gas reduction of 21.8 percent compared to gas-powered cars. So for greenhouse gas reductions its pretty good—but not perfect.

3). “Natural gas is the cleanest transportation fuel available today”: That’s what Pickens and the EPA say about natural-gas powered vehicles. It’s because, in addition to carbon dioxide reductions, NGVs also emit less carbon monoxide, non-methane organic gas and nitrogen oxides.

4). Natural gas is still a fossil fuel: Natural gas might be cleaner-burning than oil but it’s still a hydrocarbon that has to be taken out of wells and is in limited supply. The California Energy Commission says that with the rising demand for natural gas (accompanied by high oil prices) more than 15 percent of our natural gas will be imported from countries other than Canada and Mexico by 2025.

5). The Honda Civic GX: The natural gas consumer car that costs $24,590. It’s sold in California and New York and has a 170 mile fuel range.

6). Smaller Range: Natural gas vehicles have a shorter driving range than regular gas-powered vehicles, because natural gas has a lower energy content compared to gas.

7). State and Federal Incentives: Honda says the Civic GX is eligible for a combination of federal (under the Energy Policy Act of 1992), state and local incentives that could help reduce the price tag by several thousand dollars. Natural gas vehicles can also drive in the carpool lanes in some states like California.

8). With Gas Prices High, Natural Gas is Cheap, For Now: With the price of gas rising, the demand at the natural gas fuel stations that are out there is way up — like this one in Salt Lake City. That’s because, as Cleantechnica puts it “natural gas now costs about half as much per unit energy as gasoline and has an even greater cost advantage over diesel fuel.” Though natural gas prices are also going up.

9). City Fleets: The GX might get a lot of press, but a significant portion of the natural gas vehicles on the road in the U.S. are owned and maintained by cities and companies. Companies like UPS have placed orders for hundreds of natural gas vehicles; several cities in California have converted their fleets to NGVs.

10). Home Fueling: A company called FuelMaker makes a natural gas home refueler called Phill. Seriously, that’s what they named it.