In some parts of the world, such as the Balkans, gasoline cars retrofitted with natural gas tanks are a common sight on roads. In others, such the United States, such vehicles are a rarity. This might sound strange given the abundance of cheap natural gas that the United States has been enjoying in recent years. There are companies working to make the cleaner fossil fuel an alternative to gasoline, yet the chances of natural gas to replace gasoline remain slim—at least for now. But why not?
First, why is natural gas being used as a vehicle fuel at all? It’s cheaper than gasoline, that’s for sure. It is also a lot better on the emissions front and it has comparable engine efficiency rates to gasoline cars. What’s even better, natural gas is a safer fuel: it is lighter than air and dissipates in case of an accident, unlike liquid gasoline. Gas car skeptics would say that the gas tank, normally placed in the back of the vehicle, is an explosion hazard, although the risk is not as great with modern, professionally fitted gas tanks.
So, gas is cheaper, cleaner, and safer, while delivering a comparable engine performance to gasoline. Why, then, are gasoline engines not yet a thing of the past?
First, there is the problem with fuelling stations. There are a precious few for natural gas vehicles in the United States, and building a nationwide network does not really make economic sense: by the time natural gas cars take off (and there is no certainty they ever will) other alternative fuels to gasoline—or more likely electric cars—would have become more popular, erasing any potential gains from building such a network. Related: Big Oil’s Next Major Move
Second, there is the issue of cost. Just because natural gas itself is cheaper than gasoline does not make a car running on natural gas cheaper. The fuel efficiency of a natural gas car is not really exemplary. The two CNG (compressed natural gas) cars that used to be available on the U.S. market—the CNG Honda Civic and the Chevrolet Impala Bi-Fuel—are both now a thing of the past. The first had a fuel efficiency reading of 31 miles per gasoline gallon equivalent and the second’s reading was 19 MPGe. Not really impressive.
Third, there are simply no CNG cars being sold in the U.S. right now, after Honda and Chevrolet stopped manufacturing the CNG Civic and the Impala Bi-Fuel. Except fleet sales, you literally cannot buy a new CNG car in the country. You can only retrofit your gasoline vehicle with a gas system. Yet, natural gas is a viable alternative to gasoline when it comes to trucks and buses, if only for emissions’ sake.
The transportation industry accounted for as much as 28 percent of greenhouse emissions in the U.S. in 2016. Switching to CNG from gasoline makes sense for trucks and buses whose purpose is to provide reliable transport for goods and passengers rather than breaking engine performance records. Also, a fueling network for buses and trucks would be much easier—and cheaper—to build.
Elsewhere, the future of natural gas vehicles is brighter. Recently, a senior Volkswagen executive said NG vehicles could come to account for a tenth of the total vehicle fleet in Germany and Europe. In fact, Stephen Neumann told Clean Energy Wire, gas-fueled cars could become the alternative to electric vehicles, which still suffer shorter driving ranges and much longer recharging times than fossil fuel cars.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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