In many ways, the 20th century was defined by gasoline and the automobile. The entire landscape of the planet changed to accommodate cars. For example, according to the American Road and Transportation Association, roads now cover 17,947 square miles of American land with an estimated 253 million passenger vehicles (reported by HIS Markit) registered in the U.S.
But the 21st century is ushering in the decline of gasoline-powered transportation. The number of natural gas vehicles (NGVs) is rising sharply. As of the end of 2017, NGV America estimates that there are about 175,000 NGVs in operation in the U.S. based on a review of the latest figures available from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA). Worldwide, there are about 15.2 million NGVs in operation.
The advantages of natural gas as a transportation fuel include its domestic availability, widespread distribution infrastructure, and greatly reduced greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional gasoline and diesel fuels.
According to NGV America, the country’s station count has grown dramatically in the last three years. There are now nearly 2,000 natural gas refueling stations operating in the U.S. Further investments are being made to increase capacity and create a traditional fueling experience for the customer.
With this network expanding rapidly, it is only a matter of time before NGVs for consumers will become more common sightings on the nation’s roadways.
Until then, trucks, vans and buses lead the way in compressed natural gas (CNG)-powered vehicles.
“Most of the interest in natural gas as a fuel tends to be in high-fuel-use vehicles due to the economic and emission reduction benefits of operating them on cleaner, more economical natural gas,” said Daniel Gage, president, NGV America.
Buses a Popular Choice for NGVs
Transit buses, for example, burn a lot of fuel because they operate for long periods of time each day and drive more than 40,000 miles in a year. It makes sense to switch over to natural gas where the difference in fuel price can add up to big savings.
In this market, there is also interest in driving down urban emissions that contribute to pollution and health issues. New natural gas buses are powered by extremely clean, low-emission engines that are 90 percent cleaner than the newest diesel buses and much more cost effective than other alternative fuel options, according to Gage.
“Buses have long been a popular choice for natural gas because of concerns about pollution in urban areas where buses typically operate,” he said. “Since the early 1990s, natural gas has been a much cleaner option for transit agencies looking to reduce their emissions and their exposure to harmful pollutants.”
Natural gas is also a good fit for transit agencies, as they generally are centrally fueled. This means they are refueled where they are garaged. This has allowed natural gas providers to build stations at transit bus depots to refuel the buses when they return to base.
Case in point: Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) boasts the largest natural gas bus fleet in the nation. As a sign of its success with NGVs, it is adding another 295 buses. The contract includes an option for the purchase of 305 additional vehicles.
“We take our responsibility to both the environment and taxpayers very seriously,” said Cris Liban, Los Angeles County’s Metro executive officer for environment and sustainability. “By using renewable natural gas, as well as other technologies, we will continue to exceed our environmental goals and ensure we provide the best transportation service to our customers and region.”
Long-Haul Savings for Truck Fleets
These same benefits hold true for truck fleets, many of which operate long hours and accumulate high mileage each year. As well as saving on fuel expenses, truck companies are increasingly concerned about demonstrating their corporate responsibility through the use of the cleanest available technology.
“There are few applications for which natural gas is not a good option for truck fleets,” Gage said. “Today’s NGV trucks are capable of going 500-plus miles on a single fueling.”
But the biggest market for NGVs is probably refuse. In 2017, for example, Waste Management Inc. deployed its 6,000th natural gas truck and opened its 100th natural gas fueling station. Others in the refuse industry are following this example and deploying cleaner-burning natural gas trucks.
Further opportunities for natural gas include light duty trucks, SUVs and vans, which account for a significant share of the vehicles sold in the U.S. They are also serious gas guzzlers.
“Natural gas is a great option in these cases for persons who want vehicles that are larger and that require extended range,” Gage said. “Electric vehicles are not a good fit for most of these types of vehicles.”
Buses and commercial trucks have traditionally operated on diesel fuel. Before the 2015 decline in petroleum prices, natural gas was selling for $1.50 to $2.00 less than diesel per gallon in some areas of the country. For a year or two following the rapid decline in oil prices, there was little monetary advantage between natural gas and diesel. However, petroleum prices have risen once again and are expected to remain higher.
“Natural gas tends to be less expensive than gasoline or diesel, and its pricing tends to be much less variable over time,” said Dennis Smith, the National Clean Cities director for the U.S. Department of Energy.
The national average price for gasoline hovers between $2.56 and $3.00 a gallon, up from the previous year, according to EIA. In California, a big market for natural gas vehicles, diesel fuel is selling at more than $3.65 a gallon. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s March 2018 report, diesel is selling for a national average of $2.92 per gallon while the average price in the country for CNG is $2.17.
“The price spread likely has only grown since then as diesel prices have continued to climb,” Gage said.
Over time, CNG-fueled passenger cars will fill the highways of America. The availability of abundant, inexpensive and domestically produced natural gas will see its usage grow sharply as a much cleaner alternative to conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles.
On the Move was written by Drew Robb for Natural Living, a publication distributed by Southeast Gas and published by Energy Solutions Center.