'Go natgas' rallying call in US

2011-12-28 07:29

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana - The United States has record supplies of natural gas and plenty of reasons to promote natgas powered cars but the public, automakers and fuel suppliers haven't shown much interest.

However, a major natgas developer's plans to increase greatly the number of fuel outlets retailing liquid natgas could help boost its use in the very vehicles which burn the most fuel – big trucks -  and that, it is hoped, will encourage other vehicle users, including car drivers, to look seriously at this cleaner and cheaper fuel.


Lots of natgas is available, if US drivers decide to use it. In just a few years, domestic supplies have increased by trillions of cubic metres through shale finds, boosting the supply to the point where plans are in place to export part of the excess.

The growth of natgas vehicles in the US has so far been dominated by fleets of buses, taxis, and garbage haulers. Only one natgas car is commercially produced in the country: the Honda Civic GX, recently renamed the NG.  About 13 000 have been sold during its 13 years of production.

Experts say the reasons for the lacklustre sales of natgas cars are many: the fuel is only available at a handful of fuel stations, tethering the vehicles within a certain radius of a fuel source. Even though the pump price of natgas can be as much as much as R4/litre lower than petrol, natgas vehicles are more expensive to buy.

The focus for the natgas vehicle industry in the US has been commercial vehicles, especially tractor-trailer rigs. Rich Kolodziej, president of the trade association NGV America, says that makes sense in terms of overall fuel consumption: a driver who puts 20 000km a year on a car at, say, 10 litres/100km will use about 1900 litres petrol a year while a diesel-driven 18-wheeler can easily cover 200 000km a year at an average consumption of 18 litres/100km – or 76 000 litres a year.


Kolodziej asserted: "If you're trying to reduce oil imports, greenhouse gases and exhaust emissions in urban areas, where do you put your effort? In the big vehicles.”

For reasons of fuel-tank size, trucks use liquid natgas and cars compressed natgas. International trade association NGV Global has calculated that the world’s roads carry 12.7-million natgas vehicles, 6.8-million on the Asia-Pacific rim, 4.2-million in Latin America, 1.4-million in Europe and 122 000 in Africa.

The US, however, has only 112 000 of them – most of them in fleets but still fewer than one percent of the global total and less than one in every thousand of the 253.7-million vehicles in the US.

John O'Dell, senior editor of edmunds.com which follows the vehicle industry, explained: "They work well for fleets but not ordinary road users because most fleet vehicles are used for relatively short trips and garaged overnight, where they are refuelled.

"The US does not have a really good natgas fuelling system. Such infrastructure is needed before you can convince people to buy natgas cars."


Kolodziej’s statistics say there are about 180 000 fuel stations in the US but only about 1000 stock natgas – though that figure might be growing. The US’ Clean Energy Fuels Corporation is embarking on a major expansion of natgas stations and wants to add liquefied natgas pumps at 150 truck stops nationwide over the next three years.

"We've a strategy to cover every major highway in the US," said CEF’s marketing boss James Harger. “CEF provides fuel services for more than500 fleets totalling about 22 000 vehicles – city and school buses, taxis, municipal cars and garbage trucks.”

Now, however, CEF is focused on long-haul truck. Harger and other natgas proponents hope pending congressional legislation will provide tax credits to cover 80% of the cost difference of a liquid natgas tractor-trailer and a diesel. Harger said the FIVE-YEAR bill would be about $1-billion a year. The US spends more than $1-billion A DAY on imported oil.

"This will help jump-start this industry," he said.

C R England, a major refrigerated carrier, recently started using five liquid natgas tractors for its rigs in southern California. The company has 4000 diesel tractors, according to director Tracy Brown, mainly in the Los Angeles area where CEF has many natgas stations and the trucker saves as much as $0.50/litre (about R4) on its fuel bill with natgas. Fuel consumption is about the same (in litres/100km) as diesel.

“The trucks are much cleaner, much quieter," Brown said, “and we haven't noticed any power reduction against the diesel engines."


Honda is expanding sales of its Civic NG, which has a base price in the US equivalent to about R210 000, about R48 000 more that the petrol-fuelled model. Until 2011 the car was only sold (as a private vehicle) in California, Oklahoma, Utah and New York. Sales will be expanded in 2012 to 37 states but mainly through dealers within 30ikm of public natgas stations.

Honda spokeswoman Jessica Fini said the cars would, for the first time, be advertised nationally and include in their prices satnav and a premium audio system.

Fini added: "We think we are expanding the car at the right time, given the expansion in public infrastructure.”.

Honda wants to double its 1000-a-year sales – though even that is a tiny percentage of the 259 000 petrol-powered Civics sold in 2010.