Will Natural Gas Prevent Us From Reaching A Better Place?

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler
will natural gas prevent us from reaching a better place

A brief piece in the Wall Street Journal’s “Dealbook” discussed the potential of natural gas powered vehicles, largely as a way to stop falling prices for natural gas.

One hope for many natural gas producers reeling from collapsing prices is wider adoption of natural-gas-powered cars.

The biggest hurdle so far: lack of infrastructure to refuel them.

But Steven Mueller, CEO of Southwestern Energy, says if 10% of passenger cars were powered by natural gas, gasoline prices would fall by $1.60/gallon and gas producers would get 4 billion cubic feet/day in demand.

The global supply of natural gas is way up, thanks to shale deposits in the United States and other locales. Currently, the Honda Civic GX is the best-known CNG vehicle on sale currently. Buses, taxis and other commercial vehicles have been running on CNG for years, but Dodge is set to introduce a Ram Tradesman that can run on CNG – other work trucks have been converted to run on natural gas by their owners (at significant expense), but this looks to be one of the first OEM-engineered work trucks with this capability.

An NPR report (sponsored by a natural gas lobby group) touched on President Obama’s visit to a big rig factory, some of which were powered by natural gas. Obama proposed – you guessed it – tax incentives for alternative fuel vehicles, including natural gas. Natural gas vehicles aren’t that popular around the world, but have a certain following – Brazilian Fiat Siena taxicabs, LPG powered Volvos and the famous Panther platform Crown Vics and Town Cars that serve as taxi and livery cars in Toronto all exist, albeit in very small numbers.

Natural gas could potentially be a “black swan event” for the auto industry, a cheap, clean-burning fuel that could allow for both domestic energy independence and the continued hegemony of the internal combustion engine. Drivers wouldn’t have to worry about foreign oil, range anxiety or battery bricking.

The obvious problem is the lack of infrastructure. Natural gas filling stations are scant, to put it mildly. But there are rumblings (so far unsubstantiated – but keep watching TTAC for more info) that building filling stations, be it for hydrogen or other fuels, is easier and cheaper than trying to develop serious long-range, quick charging, sustainable and affordable battery technology. If this turns out to be true, then it suggests that electric cars will be forever relegated to “second car/commuter car” status.

A final note: Israel, home of Better Place and their battery swapping stations, is said to have enormous shale oil and gas deposits (so much for the joke about the Israelites wandering for 40 years and finding no oil). Aside from the obvious geopolitical implications, what kind of future would that leave for the Better Place program?

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  • Fishiftstick Fishiftstick on Mar 12, 2012

    Toronto experience: those CNG cabs and livery cars are useless if you have luggage--the tanks take up most of the trunk. Oh, and also: CNG blows up real good. Like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZmRvEEM3DQ&feature=related My windows vibrated. From 6 km away. You want to park a CNG car in your attached garage? I'd sooner park the Hindenburg in mine. Home compression filling stations? What a wonderful idea. Right next to the hot-and-cold running nitroglycerin.

    • Ronwagn Ronwagn on Apr 14, 2012

      Gasoline is more dangerous than CNG. CNG rises up in the air if it escapes. Gasoline pools on the ground. Garages with gasoline or CNG should have ventilation.

  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Mar 12, 2012

    Saw this morning an article about Japan abandoning nuclear power in favor of using Canadian natural gas to produce electricity. If we all jump on the natural gas bandwagon what are prices going to do? Same as the oil prices. Climb. Another headline - China and India possibly beginning a defensive arms race. Again what do we expect fossil fuels to do as a country with $1.5B and another country with $1.3B people try to enter first world status with all the same consumption patterns as we have enjoyed for 60 years? Diversification is the best route. So is getting as many updates done now while the price of fuel and technology is affordable. If the dollar drops as we slide to second fiddle status in the global economy, if the cost of fuel and raw materials increases sharply - those upgrades and efforts at diversification will be vastly more expensive. A transition to a diversified list of energy sources is the only way and cheaper that the wars our gov't keeps investing in. I'm surprised we Americans can't see the the value in keeping all your eggs out of one basket by now. We've seen what happens in the real estate markets, investment markets, gold markets, car business, etc. etc. I do recognize that the eggs in one basket makes somebody alot of money each time we have another economic bubble though. And still more money as those left with enough money start to buy up all the failed pieces of that bubble. Seems to me that there is a motivation for some to encourage bubbles and then get out just in time and then come back to buy up the pieces and reap more profits.

    • Ronwagn Ronwagn on Apr 14, 2012

      Oil companies will have to sell their natural gas. There are a lot of small suppliers that will sell it. It does not have to be refined like gasoline and diesel. We need to use all the energy we can find, but nuclear and coal are the most dangerous and dirtiest.

  • 2ACL If you weren't throwing away your Mercedes after the warranty expired, this will fix that. This is an overly complex answer to the AMG question I don't think will endure the test of time.
  • Kwik_Shift Looks like what a redesigned Nissan Murano would be. I believe Murano is done.
  • MaintenanceCosts This is a Volvo EX90 with swoopier styling and less interior room. I'm really not sure I understand the target audience.
  • Stuki Moi If government officials, and voters, could, like, read and, like, count and, like, stuff: They'd take the opportunity to replace fixed license numbers, with random publicly available keys derived from a non-public private key known only to them and the vehicle's owner. The plate's displayed number would be undecipherable to every slimeball out there with a plate reader who is selling people's whereabouts and movements, since it would change every day/hour/minute. Yet any cop with a proper warrant and a plate scanner, could decipher it just as easily as today.
  • Dukeisduke Is this the one that doesn't have a back window? Like a commercial van?