Natural Gas Is Gaining Support As The Auto Fuel Of The Future

Posted: April 21, 1991

Reformulated gasoline and methanol alcohol are the marquee names of the alternative-fuel show. Compressed natural gas tends to get small billing, even though it is much cheaper.

There is some basis for that inequity: For largely logistical reasons, methanol and reformulated gas are the most likely alternative candidates for the fuel tanks of America's pleasure cars.

But recent developments, including the new federal clean-air legislation, provide a much brighter outlook for the use of low-cost, clean-burning, compressed natural gas (CNG) as a car and truck fuel, particularly in service fleets.

"More has happened in the last eight months (to promote CNG use) than happened in the previous eight years," contends Myles Meehan, Philadelphia Electric's manager of gas business.

Meehan, it turns out, isn't just blowing CNG smoke.

Petroleum companies, eager to find new markets for their large supplies of natural gas, are taking steps to combat CNG's biggest drawback: Lack of availability.

In California, Colorado and Washington, Amoco, Unocal and Phillips Petroleum have installed CNG dispensers alongside their regular gas pumps to refuel vehicles equipped with conversion kits that allow them to burn either CNG or gasoline.

These CNG dispensers are scheduled to be installed by several other petroleum companies in some of their Pennsylvania stations later this year, Meehan says.

In other developments:

* A Canadian company, FuelMaker Corp., is planning to market a residential natural gas compressor/dispenser in the United States in about a year. The dispenser, already being tested by a number of U.S. utilities, will allow homeowners with natural gas service to refuel their own cars.

* The new clean-air legislation requires companies in polluted big cities such as Philadelphia to begin converting their service fleets to alternative

fuels by the 1998 model year. That will encourage CNG use for two reasons: CNG could mean important cost savings for service fleets. And CNG is ideal for a fleet that returns at the end of each day to a lot where it can be refueled.

* CNG also stands to benefit from a recent program in which the State of Pennsylvania will pay part of the cost of converting fleet vehicles to an alternative fuel.

* The automakers are finally getting into the CNG act. General Motors is building several thousand CNG-powered pickups, primarily for use in pollution- plagued California, and Chrysler has announced a pilot project to build about 50 CNG vehicles.

To date, the automotive use of compressed natural gas has been largely a gleam in the eyes of petroleum companies and utilities such as Philadelphia Electric, which markets natural gas in the city's suburbs.

The clientele at PE's Plymouth Meeting and Warminster CNG refueling stations amounts to only 125 cars and trucks, including, perhaps most notably, Warminster Township's police cars.

There are reasons for this limited use, but price certainly isn't one of them. PE sells an amount of CNG equivalent to a gallon of gasoline for about 60 cents. That makes it about half the price of gasoline, and about a third the cost of methanol.

Availability is CNG's biggest problem to date: There is no refueling station network set up yet, and the home refueling device is still not available. At the moment, PE's two refueling stations are the only public CNG facilities in the metropolitan area.

"The whole technology has been a classic example of the chicken-and-egg syndrome," PE's Meehan observes. "The automakers had been saying that since there was no fuel available, they weren't going to build (CNG) cars, and the petroleum companies were saying that since no one was building the cars they weren't going to make the fuel available."

Another drawback is the cost of CNG conversion. The conversion kit costs anywhere from $2,200 to $3,200. If you want your own home refueling station, your cost will double. According to Bruce Vernon, FuelMaker's marketing manager, the CNG home unit will retail here for about $3,000.

Those costs would make a lot more sense to high-mileage commercial fleet owners than to most pleasure-car drivers - at least as long as gasoline is cheap. It is also worth noting that the conversion kit and dispenser are one- time costs, since both can be used with the owner's next vehicle.

The CNG conversion kit consists of a CNG tank and a series of regulators and valves that allow the engine to run on either gasoline or natural gas. You can switch instantly from one fuel to the other by pressing a button on the dashboard. Thus, if you are running low on CNG and no natural-gas station is handy, you just switch over to your car's original gasoline system.

These conversions do have some disadvantages: The tank takes up room in the trunk, for one thing. There is also some power loss when you use CNG instead of gasoline.

This decreased oomph was evident when an Inquirer reporter tested one of PE's CNG-converted vans. The truck accelerated from zero to 50 miles an hour in 10.5 seconds when running on gasoline, but needed 13.5 seconds to perform that feat on CNG.

That power loss would go away if there were wide enough public acceptance of CNG cars. If demand were sufficient, automakers could calibrate the engine- management systems of CNG-converted cars to run on both gasoline and CNG. At present, they are calibrated only for gasoline use, which caused the engine to lose power and efficiency when running on CNG.

Similarly, the auto manufacturers' economies of scale would make the dual fuel system a lot cheaper than the current conversion kits.