Given a choice, natural gas probably wouldn’t be many people’s idea of an ideal future transportation fuel. Just think of how much comes from fracking these days.
That said, natural gas does have things to recommend it. It is abundant, cheap, available close to home, and a lot cleaner than gasoline. The Honda Civic GX–currently the only compressed natural gas vehicle (NGV) on the U.S. market–emits 29% less CO2 than its conventional cousin (though 30% more than the hybrid). And it is also better for air quality, producing less carbon monoxide and other nastiness.
In the past, the problem in getting people to use NGVs has not been environmental, but cost and inconvenience. In the 1990s, when the natural gas industry last made a serious push to get us interested, the fuel price was similar to gasoline, there were never enough filing stations, and vehicles were either non-existent, or expensive to covert.
Now, though, natural gas is sometimes $2 per gallon-equivalent less than gasoline, and conversion costs have fallen dramatically (purpose-built models are still about $6,000 more expensive than gasoline cars). What is more, the industry is planning to add more filling stations (about 1,000 to the 1,500 now), and to work around the infrastructure issue by getting more people to refuel at home. It thinks if more people can get their gas from home supplies, they won’t be put off by a lack of outlets on the road.
“We think this is worth revisiting because the electric and plug-in hybrid market has shown that recharging at home is a real selling point for consumers,” says Kathryn Clay, head of the Drive Natural Gas Initiative, a coalition of gas producers and distributors.
“We think if we can give consumers that kind of convenience and also get the price point down that might be the way out of this logjam with alternative fuels, where it’s either the infrastructure first or the vehicles. If you have some consumers home-refueling that takes some of the pressure off needing to have a public infrastructure.”
There is already a gas home-fueling product on the market: the Phill, which was recently relaunched by an Italian company, having been dropped by Honda in 2009. But Clay says the price ($4,000-plus) is probably at least twice as much as it needs to be. So, her organization is working with manufacturers to develop a new product, possibly with a slower flow rate in order to reduce costs. She thinks it could be ready in two years.
Before then, the industry will also have to persuade auto manufacturers to build more NGV cars. Currently, many are wary because of the small market, and worries over how consumers will see natural gas’s environmental benefits.
“The worse thing for them that could happen would be to bet billions of dollars on what they perceive to be a green technology and later on down the road having the tables turned, and that technology no longer giving them a green halo, but more of a downside,” Clay says.
It will be hard to convince foes of fracking, but home fueling may be enough to get more people to use NGVs–especially if the price of natural gas remains so much lower than gasoline.