Natural Gas: Fueling the Future – Part 1

   The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that today roughly 14.8 million vehicles worldwide run on natural gas, and the number is expected to rise.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that today roughly 14.8 million vehicles worldwide run on natural gas, and the number is expected to rise.

Benefits and Barriers of Compressed Natural Gas Vehicles

With an array of vehicle powertrains – gasoline, natural gas, diesel, fuel cell, electric, propane, and more – now powering our vehicles, it’s imperative that auto suppliers are experienced with a range of powertrain platforms to ensure they are prepared to meet the demands of the vehicles of tomorrow.   

While the market is dominated by gasoline and diesel, compressed natural gas (CNG) is gaining attention from manufacturers.  Composed mostly of methane, CNG is cleaner burning than the other fossil fuels.  Today, based on estimates by the U.S. Department of Energy, roughly 14.8 million of the more than 1 billion vehicles worldwide run on natural gas, with about 112,000 in the United States.  In a recent report, Navigant Research predicts that annual sales of light-duty, natural-gas vehicles (NGVs) will nearly double by 2023 and by this time there will be 40 million NGVs worldwide.

Due to the vast amount of information available on this topic, we have divided the discussion into two posts.  In the first part, presented below, the benefits to using natural gas as an alternative fuel are discussed.  Part 2, which will be posted next month, will delve deeper into the barriers to adoption and what is being done to overcome these obstacles.

The Benefits of CNG

CNG’s environmental benefits are often listed as one of the main reasons to adopt it as a transportation fuel.  According to a U.S. Department of Energy well-to-wheels analysis, when CNG burns it releases 9 percent fewer greenhouse gases and 45 percent fewer smog-producing pollutants in comparison with gasoline.  In addition, natural gas is non-toxic; if it escapes into the environment it will not contaminate ground or water resources.  The environmental benefits of CNG are significant enough that, in an attempt to reduce air pollution, the Indian government mandated that all city buses and auto rickshaws run on natural gas.

Another reason often cited for the adoption of CNG is the reduced cost of vehicle ownership.  Currently, natural gas is on average $1.50 to $2 less expensive than diesel and gasoline on an energy equivalent basis.  This can mean significant cost savings over time, especially for vehicles that rack up a lot of miles per year such as semi-trucks, refuse haulers, public transportation, and fleet vehicles.  However, as the adoption of CNG and other alternative fuels increases, governments may adjust the tax rates on all transportation fuels, possibly minimizing the fuel cost savings advantage. NGVs also have the added benefit of lower maintenance costs, such as longer intervals between oil changes, because it burns cleaner than gasoline and results in less residue build-up.

As of 2013, Iran, Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, and China had the largest number of NGVs on the road. Interestingly, based on information from the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, four of these countries also are among the top 25 natural gas producing countries.  Accordingly, domestic production is among the list of frequently mentioned benefits of CNG adoption because it allows countries to have greater control over availability and price of the fuel, commonly termed “energy security” or “energy independence.”  These countries used several policy tools to increase the market penetration of NGVs.  In the United States, the recent advent of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”, and its resultant bounty of inexpensive natural gas, has raised new hope for greater energy security in North America.

All of the above indicate that CNG is a promising alternative fuel.  However, every alternative fuel comes with its own set of barriers.  In our next post we will discuss some of the barriers blocking the adoption of CNG and the potential solutions being developed to overcome these barriers.

  • What do you view as the most important benefit to using CNG as transportation fuel?

Published by Eve Steigerwalt


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