PROJECT GREEN

A Natural Road Trip

Passing the 'fossil fools' in a CNG-powered car

A Natural Gas Road Trip

NEWSWEEK's Karen Breslau goes on a trip along California's coast in a natural-gas powered car, testing the state's fueling infrastructure along the way.

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"You don't know what I'm talking about."

T. Boone Pickens had me nailed. We were aboard his Gulfstream jet, flying back from a day of shooting one of his "Pickens Plan" energy commercials at a west Texas wind farm. The billionaire oilman turned wind-energy evangelist was rhapsodizing about the new fueling system he was having installed in his Dallas mansion. Using a home fueling unit in his garage that runs off the same gas line that powers his stove (Boone Pickens cooks?), he would be able to fill up his natural-gas-powered Honda Civic for the equivalent of about $1.20 per gallon, he explained. All from the comfort of his own home.

I feigned reportorial omniscience, but had to admit—I really didn't know what he was talking about. That night, from my hotel in Dallas, I called my brother, an energy-industry executive in Houston. He didn't know much about compressed natural gas (CNG) as a consumer transportation fuel either. So I decided to take Pickens' suggestion, and go find out for myself.

Natural gas is a relatively abundant, domestically produced fossil fuel—one of the byproducts of drilling for oil. Most natural gas is used today to fire power plants, produce electricity and heat homes. While large vehicle fleets such as buses, taxis, garbage trucks and government vehicles have long been powered by natural gas, the use of CNG as a consumer fuel in the United States is still largely a niche market. Of the 8.4 million natural-gas-powered vehicles worldwide, only 120,000 are in the United States, and of those, only about 1,500 or so are owned by individual consumers, a set of statistics that makes Pickens go ballistic. He says he's motivated by patriotism, but let's not forget that included in his business empire is Clean Energy Fuels Corp (CLNE), the largest provider of natural gas for vehicles in North America. If we all start lining up for natural gas to put in our engines, T. Boone Pickens is going to get a lot richer.

Still, I was intrigued, especially when I found out that the only natural-gas-powered car on the U.S. market, the Honda Civic GX, sells most of its cars in California, where I am based. With the help of NEWSWEEK's veteran automotive correspondent, Keith Naughton, I arranged to test a Honda Civic GX on a working vacation. Our mission: to take the all-American family road trip on all-American natural gas.

With my son, Ben, 9, and my daughter, Sarah, 5, we picked up our Civic GX at Los Angeles International Airport last Monday, with a plan to visit friends in nearby Santa Monica, then head south to my father's place near San Diego, then make the 470-mile drive back up the coast to our home in Oakland, testing the natural-gas fueling infrastructure along the way. According to Honda and the Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy research facility outside Chicago, there are only 1,200 natural-gas fueling stations in the United States (vs. 190,000 for gasoline and diesel). Of those, only about half are open to the public: the rest are reserved for use by government and commercial fleets. Our route along the California coast offered only a few dozen stations to choose from, so advance planning was crucial. We had to plot the range of our tank—about 225 miles—and the distance between CNG fueling stations (a couple of good Web sites for the task: http://www.cngvc.org/ and the U.S. Department of Energy's station finder, www.eere.energy.gov/afdc/stations/find-route.php.) The folks at Honda also left me a brochure with locations of California fueling stations in the front seat.

I also found out that not all stations take standard credit cards: in northern California, many of the stations are operated by Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility company. So I had to apply for one of their credit cards (lead time is normally about two to three weeks, though PG&E got me my card in about a week). The most frustrating moment of our trip came after a 300-mile leg from Santa Barbara to the Bay Area. I found a station in industrial Union City, which required a long drive from the freeway (the station guide is vague on this front: the 20-minute drive took us far out of our way.) Once I got there, with darkness falling, it turned out that the credit-card reader was broken. So, no fuel, wasted time—and hungry kids in the back seat. Thankfully, we had enough fuel left to putter into Oakland.

Fueling takes some getting used to. PG&E gave me a lesson on how to do it safely at a CNG station near my office in San Francisco. The nozzle is heavier than the ones we're all accustomed to, and while some pumps functioned smoothly, at times during our road trip I had to wrestle the nozzle loose from the car. The gas is pressurized at 3,600psi, and it makes an unnerving hiss when you disconnect it. Some pumps also are not compressed properly and won't fill the car completely, which can be annoying. PG&E spokeswoman Jill Egbert informs me that the car's tank, which holds the equivalent of 8 gallons, was safety-tested by being dropped off a 10-story building. At each station, we were also subjected to a training video at the pump: we were supposed to receive a code that would allow us to bypass the video at subsequent stations, but it never seemed to work. By the end of the trip, the kids and I were chanting along with the video as we waited for the fueling to start.

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Member Comments

  • Posted By: zentex @ 09/03/2008 7:39:56 PM

    "Fossil fools"? Are you including yourself under that heading, too? Or does natural gas not come from dinosaur droppings?

  • Posted By: gumby @ 08/27/2008 12:08:02 AM

    Please, pezled, show us where AN Y manufacturer of hybrids states that they'll last only 3 to 5 years. You are simply making that up, and it is blatantly untrue. ALL hybrids sold in the US have AT LEAST an 8yr/80,000 mile warranty on ALL HYBRID COMPONENTS, INCLUDING THE HYBRID BATTERY. Those sold in California and the 5 other "clean" states require a 10yr/150,000 mile warranty on those same components. Get your facts straight before slamming battery-hybrid technology. It is serving a useful purpose TODAY. No massive refueling infrastructure costs necessary. Don't be scared just because you know little about the technology...

  • Posted By: pezled @ 08/25/2008 7:16:00 AM

    I don't know where you get the info that a hybrid car will only need one battery in it's life span. The manufacturer says 3-5 years. I guessing you plan on a lexus to last longer than that. As for not comparing the same types of cars.....well, that is the crux of the problem. Everybody wants to yell about how green they are, but they need a FASTER car than my little ol' CRV. Why? I can go the speed limit on any interstate we have. Why do you need to go faster than that? It's people not being willing to change their "car standard" which is the problem.

    As far as natural gas goes - are you even aware of the Barnett Shale discovery, followed by the Haynesville shale discovery? The Barnett shale, located in central Texas was the biggest natural gas find ever......until the Haynesville shale discovery, located in northwest La, East Tx. The Haynesvill shale is 100 times more gas than the Barnett shale. There is much more natural gas to go around than oil, and it can come from American sources, not unfriendly foreign nations. Natural gas is not about to run out.

 
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