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Natural Gas: Tapping Abundant Resource for Cars Has Its Challenges


By Dan Strumpf
Seattle Times
September 5, 2008


In the early 1990s, all three major American automakers started
building clean and efficient natural gas vehicles. But when a new federal law
failed to create an expected guaranteed market, the momentum died. Today, only
Honda sells a model in the United States and in minuscule numbers.
Now, as drivers reel from high gasoline prices, natural gas vehicles are
attracting renewed interest on Capitol Hill and in Detroit. And oil billionaire
T. Boone Pickens has plugged them as a key part of his plan to wean the United
States off foreign petroleum. He has said he believes a third of all cars in the
United States could eventually be powered by natural gas.

But there are mammoth hurdles. Of 176,000 gas stations in the United States,
fewer than 2,000 carry natural gas, according to the Department of Energy. There
are 8 million natural gas vehicles worldwide, but only 120,000 here, according
to Natural Gas Vehicles for America, mostly in government or corporate fleets.
Natural gas vehicles run on a normal internal combustion engine but have a
special, high-pressure fuel tank that is cheap to fill. In April, compressed
natural gas averaged $2.04 for the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, compared
with $3.53 for gasoline. They also emit 20 percent less greenhouse gas and less
than a third the amount of smog than petroleum-powered cars. Because natural gas
is less flammable than gasoline and because the sealed fuel tank admits no
oxygen, the chance of an explosion is very low.

Both Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., have introduced
legislation that would help increase the number of natural gas pumps and vehicles.

Advocates are attracted to natural gas because the United States gets 98 percent
of its supply from domestic sources. And many think that recently discovered
deposits of shale in Louisiana, Texas and under the Appalachian Mountains could
keep the country self-sufficient for decades.

The government last tried to popularize natural gas vehicles in the early 1990s
when Congress passed a law requiring government fleets to switch to alternative
fuels. The major U.S. automakers jumped on board, but the push sputtered when
the Department of Energy decided not to make local governments comply with the rule.

"The auto companies also did a lousy job marketing them," said Richard
Kolodziej, president of Natural Gas Vehicles for America.

By 2004, Honda's Civic GX was the only commercially available natural gas
vehicle still sold in the United States. Honda bumped its 2009 run to 1,500 cars
from 1,000, to meet increasing demand. Dealers have already ordered the entire supply.

New York and California are the only states where Honda markets the Civic GX,
which retails for $24,590 and gets 36 miles per gallon.

FuelMaker, a company part-owned by Honda, sells a home fueling station called
Phill, which lets owners pump the natural gas they use for heating their homes
directly into their Civic GX.

Phill costs $4,000 to $4,300 and requires a $1,500 installation. Owners are
eligible for a $1,000 federal tax credit and can fill up at home for about $1 or
$2 dollars a gallon. FuelMaker has sold only about 400 Phills in the U.S..

Emanuel's bill, which has yet to be voted on, offers a further tax break for
Phill owners, and a $90,000 credit and low-interest loans to service stations
that install a natural gas pump.

In Detroit, GM is the only automaker to show interest in revisiting natural gas.
"Energy prices have changed," said Larry Burns, GM's vice president of research
and development, "and the value propositions are out there that it shouldn't be
big news or surprising that we're exploring natural gas."

To get around the fueling problem, GM has considered offering flex-fuel vehicles
that could run on either natural gas or petroleum, Burns said.

And there's also propane

NEW YORK It already heats your home and grills your steak, and if Brian Feehan
and others have their way, it could soon power your child's school bus. Maybe
even your truck, too.

Feehan, vice president of the Washington-based Propane Education and Research
Council, said his group is working with engine makers, automakers and others to
get 10 percent of select auto fleets running on propane by 2017. That, he
estimated, would save a billion gallons of gasoline per year.

There are already 11 million propane-powered vehicles operating in the world
today, Feehan said, making it "the leader in alternative fuel."

"That technology, we feel, is going to be around for a while now," he said
Wednesday at an event in Central Park touting the future of the fuel in the
automotive industry. "We've perfected it."

Propane is similar to (and is one component of) natural gas. Like natural gas,
it burns cleaner than gasoline. But the two gases have differing properties, and
propane proponents are focusing on fleet use only.

A gallon of propane contains less energy than a gallon of gas, hurting fuel
economy, but propane is much cheaper, and the federal government provides a
50-cent-per-gallon tax credit for its use.

In July, a San Antonio-area school district unveiled a fleet of 16 school buses
it bought from Blue Bird Corp. that are the first in the nation manufactured to
run on propane. School officials estimated running the buses on propane would
cut their fuel expenses in half.

"It's powerful, it's quiet, it's fuel efficient," said Ron Smith of Blue Bird.

 

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