Is a natural gas car revolution coming in the U.S.?

Cheap, abundant natural gas is changing the game for energy in the U.S., and that means a renewed push for natural gas cars. According to Pike Research, there will be a total of 25 million natural gas vehicles on the roads worldwide by 2019, and the amount of natural gas vehicles sold in North America will grow around 10 percent a year between now and 2019. GE estimates there are 15 million natural gas cars globally today, and around 250,000 in the U.S.
For now, the amount of natural gas trucks for commercial fleets will outpace sales of natural gas cars to consumers in most markets, as there just aren’t many natural gas consumer cars available, the infrastructure for fueling such cars isn’t widespread, and consumers haven’t shown all that much interest in these cars yet. A few countries in the world, however, do have significant amounts of natural gas cars on the roads already, particularly for taxi use, including Argentina, Brazil, Iran, and Egypt, says Pike Research. In addition, Pakistan will have 2.7 million natural gas vehicles on the roads by the end of 2012.
In the U.S., though, a renewed push from companies and the government could lead to more innovation to deliver natural gas cars to consumers. Last week, the Department of Energy’s high-risk, early stage program — ARPA-E — announced a new project that will give $30 million in grants to companies, university labs and startups building the next-generation of natural gas vehicle technology. Grant winners included GE, Ford, Eaton, SRI, Other Lab, Texas A&M, Pacific Northwest National Labs, and the Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas at Austin.
GE is using the grant to build a natural gas refueling station for homes that will be cheaper and can refuel more quickly than what’s currently available. Other Lab is using the grant to work on a high-pressure natural gas tank that uses small diameter tubes tightly wound into a tank shape, like intestines.
As GigaOM Pro cleantech analyst Adam Lesser wrote earlier this year, all this innovation is all being spurred by super low cost, and abundant natural gas in the U.S. Natural gas dipped below $2 per thousand cubic feet in April, the first time in a decade, driven by the expansion in hydraulic fracking, a mild winter and the fact that the U.S. market is largely closed to outside demand because we cannot yet export natural gas at scale. That makes today’s natural gas prices of around $2.40, the same as about $14 per barrel of oil, or $1.50 less per gallon when compared to gasoline. And natural gas emits fewer emissions when burned compared to oil.
Image courtesy of GE, Gerry Dincher.