Compressed natural gas: A trend on the horizon?

The 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas , the country's only CNG pleasure car, rolls off the line.
The 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas , the country's only CNG pleasure car, rolls off the line.
Posted: November 25, 2012

Exhibit A: On Oct. 30, at the behest of the gas industry and other potential fleet customers, Chrysler's Ram Truck division began building a pickup powered by compressed natural gas (CNG). This heavy-duty Ram 2500 4X4 Longbed thus became America's only factory-built CNG pickup.

Exhibit B: Honda, which lays claim to this country's only factory-assembled CNG pleasure car, the Civic GX, greatly expanded that vehicle's sales arena for the 2012 model year. Available previously in only a handful of states, the GX can now be purchased at 197 dealerships in 36 states.

It takes more than two wind gusts to qualify as Hurricane Sandy, of course, but these developments at Ram Truck and Honda could well be the harbingers of a significant growth in the use of CNG vehicles in this country. The fact is, CNG is a much cheaper, cleaner way to run our cars and trucks than gasoline. Indeed, the upward trend in gasoline prices (never mind the current temporary dip) coupled with the price-depressing glut of natural gas has made CNG 30 percent to 40 percent cheaper. That's a reduction of about $1.25 per gallon equivalent of gasoline.

The environmental impact is even more dramatic. When CNG is burned instead of gasoline, greenhouse gases come down 28 percent, according to the California Air Resources Board. Chrysler vice president Robert E. Lee, head of engine engineering, added that "CNG demonstrates a reduction of 70 to 90 percent of smog-producing pollutants." Reductions in overall emissions, including nasties like nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide, are also significant.

In addition to being cleaner and cheaper, the pros of CNG vehicles include their ability to run on either compressed natural gas or gasoline, and the way they can reduce our dependence on foreign oil. There are also incentives to buy natural gas vehicles. Honda, in partnership with Clean Energy Fuels Corp., America's largest owner of public CNG fueling stations, is offering Civic GX buyers a $3,000 debit card that can be used at Clean Energy's stations. Also, Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection offers a $1,000 rebate to residents who purchase a new CNG vehicle.

There are CNG cons, too. Automakers generally build CNG vehicles by converting conventional gasoline cars to run on either fuel. This "bi-fuel" conversion adds to the vehicle's practicality - but also to its cost. The conversion tacks $5,650 to the cost of the Civic GX, and $11,000 on the big Ram pickup's sticker. (Chrysler spokesman Nick Cappa points out that if you drive the truck 15,000 to 20,000 miles a year, the CNG option will pay for itself in three years.)

Also, the CNG tanks take up cargo space. The tanks for the Ram occupy about a third of its eight-foot bed. The Civic GX's tank farm claims a goodly trunk chunk, although Honda spokeswoman Angie Nucci points out that you can still fit two golf bags in there. (Automakers are obsessed with their trunks' golf bag capacity. Seeking adequate bag room is the industry's answer to the search for the Holy Grail.) Additionally, the CNG tanks add weight to the vehicle.

The other con is current refueling infrastructure. The United States, whose CNG fleet size is 11th worldwide, also lags in refueling stations. Argentina, for example, has about 2,000 stations. We have about 1,500, of which half are open to the public. (There are eight in the Philadelphia area.) The number of stations is growing, however, and home fueling pumps are available for people with gas service.

Virtually any gasoline vehicle can be converted to bi-fuel, and such conversions, prevalent in such countries as Germany, Brazil and Argentina, are available here.


Contact Al Haas at alhaasauto@aol.com.

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