Published December 18, 2012
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.
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.
For the average motorist, there are good reasons to switch.
"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.
Before you run out to buy an NGV, consider these limitations.
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.
Copyright 2012, Bankrate Inc.