Now that natural gas is available more abundantly in a growing number of sections of the country, more managers of some fleets are turning to it as a source of fuel for their vehicles. That’s because natural gas is cheaper than gasoline or diesel. The savings per gallon range from $1.50 to $2.00, according to NGV America (Natural Gas Vehicles for America), a group of government agencies, companies and environmental groups championing natural gas and biomethane as fuels to power motor vehicles. Though natural gas is a fossil-based fuel, it pollutes less than gasoline and petroleum-based diesel, which are also fossil fuels.
Currently, there’re just about 142,000 NGVs in the U.S., according to NGV America. Of that number, up to 83,000 are light-duty vehicles (cars, SUVs, trucks and vans) used in fleets and for personal use. Medium-duty vehicles such as select government vehicles, vehicles to deliver packages, vehicles used as shuttles, moving trucks, service vehicles and others account for up to 24,000 more NGVs. In the heavy-duty category, up to 35,000 vehicles are fueled by natural gas. These vehicles include city and school buses, select shuttles, trash trucks, trucks used for hauling and assorted other vehicles.
Thus far in the U.S., many in the fleet sector who manage gasoline-guzzling or diesel-guzzling vehicles that log a lot of annual miles have embraced NGVs. That’s because these fleets recoup the extra cost of converting a vehicle to use natural gas or the cost of buying a new natural gas vehicle in a few years. The cost of a converssion starts at about $10,000. For the typical consumer who drives fewer miles annually than a commercial driver, recouping the extra expense will take longer.
Waste Management, a major supplier of waste management services nationwide, uses NGVs, and it reports that for each of its NGVs it chalks up fuel savings of $30,000 a year. Among other large operations that have a large number of NGVs are Hamilton Township, New Jersey, which has NGV garbage trucks; Leon County, Flordia that has more than 80 NGV school buses; and the National Park Service’s branch at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona that uses buses fueled by natural gas to transport visitors. These fleets were named in the article “Fleets: Government,“ which appeared on the “CNG Now” website.
Vehicles Targeted to Consumers
The only dedicated natural gas vehicle-a vehicle that runs solely on natural gas-that’s made in and for consumers in the U.S. is the Honda Civic Natural Gas, which has been available since 1998. It has a base price of $27,430 compared to the $18,190 sticker price for the gasoline-powered model. The manufacturer says the vehicle cuts fuel costs by thrity to forty percent. Shortly, GM will introduce the Chevrolet Impala in a bi-fuel version, which means the vehicle runs on either natural gas or gasoline. No price has been announced yet.
The Honda Civic Natural Gas uses CNG, compressed natural gas, which is one of the two types of natural gas used to fuel motor vehicles. It’s formed by compressing natural gas. Most light-duty and many medium-duty vehicles use CNG.
The other form of natural gas used as fuel is LNG, liquefied natural gas. To make it, producers cool natural gas enough to turn it into a liquid and then store it in tanks kept at low temperstures. Heavy-duty vehicles and, especially, 18-wheelers, are typical users of LNG because their engines run for many hours during the day and, therefore, can keep the gas cool enough so it won’t revert back to a gas. LNG weighs less than CNG too, which is a plus for long-distance drivers of heavy-duty vehicles.
As for fleet vehicles, GM offers the Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra 2500 HD, two off-the-assembly-line bi-fuel pickups. The company also offers CNG cargo vans. Chrysler’s Dodge Ram 2500 CNG is another choice. Ford offers about eight vehicles that can be converted to NGVs by authorized personnel.
So, what’s it going to take for the number of natural gas vehicles to grow? The cost of building fueling stations that dispense natural gas needs to come down to increase the number of fueling stations. Currently, 632 CNG and 42 LNG public fueling stations dot the country, according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center of the Department of Energy. (Some fleets rely on private fueling stations.)
The Drive Natural Gas Initiative estimates that there needs to be 12,000 to 24,000 CNG fueling stations to put NGVs on a more level playing field with traditional vehicles. There are a limited number of L/CNG stations that can convert LNG to CNG for dispensing on the spot.
Most of the stations are located in densely populated areas and/or areas where domestic natural gas is abundant. Some fleet managers who aren’t compleely confidant about the availability of fueling stations for NGVs, purchase bi-fuel vehicles. Another factor that will spur the growth of natural gas vehicles is for auto makers to see evidence that consumers think they have environmental and economic advantages and will buy them.
In addition to dedicated and bi-fuel vehicles, a third type of natural gas vehicle is the dual-fuel vehicle that operates using natural gas and diesel. So far, natural gas vehicles have taken a back seat to electric vehicles. Time will tell whether the changing nature of energy resources, government policies and a public that’s more educated about them can bring them out of the shadows.