Lots of people have taken the hybrid plunge, purchasing a Prius, Ford Escape or a number of other models that couple battery power with a small gas engine to maximize gas mileage. And electric cars have captured the imagination of a nation interested in cleaner air despite the fact that their permanence in the consumer pantheon remains to be seen.
But what's the potential of a natural gas-powered car? America would seem to answer with a collective yawn.
There is an alternative
Does it matter that this country likely has enough natural gas to fill every single commuter's tank for decades? It should. The U.S. Energy Information Administration lists some 35.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in Alaska's North Slope. And analysts at the Potential Gas Committee say that when they combine their findings with that of the EIA, they believe U.S. natural gas reserves to be a future supply of 2,174 trillion cubic feet.
That's an estimated 100-year supply.
And why should we care? There are a number of reasons. President Ronald Reagan put it this way: "Energy independence is the best preparation America can make for the future."
Another is air quality.
Exhaust emissions from natural gas vehicles are cleaner than their gasoline- or diesel-burning compatriots.
Natural Gas Vehicles for America says the only production natural gas-powered passenger car, the Honda Civic CNG, produces 95 percent fewer emissions of non-methane hydrocarbons, and 75 percent less emissions of nitrogen oxides than its gasoline counterpart. The EPA rates it as the cleanest internal-combustion car on the market.
Imagine this contrast: Stand behind a city bus that blows by burning diesel. The fumes can be noxious. Natural gas buses on the other hand have none of the soot and are much less likely to cause riders to hold their breath until they turn blue.
Companies are beginning to see opportunity, especially since the EIA says natural gas, on average, costs 42 percent less than diesel fuel on an energy equivalent basis and is expected to cost 50 percent less by 2035.
EcoDual LLC has developed a duel fuel system for heavy-duty diesel trucks that allows them burn up to 80 percent natural gas.
"Because heavy trucks use so much diesel and there is such a dramatic price differential between diesel and natural gas, the systems will pay for themselves in only about 12 months of typical use," says Doug Thomson, vice president, government relations and marketing of EcoDual LLC, in an email.
Thomson says the main hurdle is that his company has to certify the emissions for each family of engines. He says the company is working its way through the process with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. He says the emissions are "definitely better with natural gas, but for now we are focused on just showing off the operating cost savings."
Range is not a problem
And for the popular misconception that compressed natural gas trucks have limited range? Thomson says with new large tanks and his company's technology, "that’s no longer a problem."
Ngvglobal.com reports that EcoDual has won authorization from the EPA to begin installing its systems on 2004 to 2009 Cummins ISX engines.
Natural gas won't end the dangerous climate warming build-up of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, but it does provide an inexpensive and cleaner alternative while innovators work the kinks out of other energy delivery systems. It's obviously not the most popular on Wall Street, but it's got a shot and should have a place in the mix.
Fleets going natural
Municipalities, small governments and public entities are certainly paying attention.
Fresno, Calif., which is my neck of the woods, is on board. The city has 66 buses that run on compressed natural gas, four trollies, nine light duty trucks, eight street sweepers and a bunch more.
City officials adopted "Operation Clean Air" in 2003 with other counties, cities, businesses and nonprofits in the region. Fresno continues to update its fleets. The initiative is committed to improving air quality in the San Joaquin Valley, which ranks near the top for worst air pollution in the United States.
Perhaps the highest profile West Coast move to clean trucking has been at the Port of Los Angeles, which estimates it has reduced emissions 80 percent compared with 2007 average air emissions data. Port officials say that as of January 2012, 100 percent of the "cargo gate moves" at port terminals are made with trucks meeting EPA clean truck standards. Many of those trucks use liquefied natural gas or compressed natural gas.
Sharing the highways
Natural Gas Vehicles for America reports that there are about 112,000 natural-gas vehicles on U.S. roads and more than 13 million worldwide. However, there are only about 1,000 domestic fueling stations with about half open to the public.
About 30 different manufacturers in this country produce 100 models of light, medium and heavy-duty vehicles and engines, according to Natural Gas Vehicles. The organization says industry data shows that natural gas consumed by vehicles "nearly doubled between 2003 and 2009."
And demand is growing, especially from bus fleets, at airports and in private fleets.
The EIA shows relatively stable natural gas prices despite recent inventory draw downs that spiked prices. "Natural gas working inventories continue to set new record seasonal highs and ended January 2012 at an estimated 2.86 trillion cubic feet, about 24 percent above the same time last year," EIA analysts write.
Carving out a consumer market
Despite inroads, acceptance of the fuel by the average consumer faces an uphill battle.
For instance, Greencarreports.com offers on its home page a menu that says "car types."
The photo-heavy drop-down offers the latest news on hybrids, electrics, clean diesels and fuel cells with a more specific cluster off to the right drilling down into posts about Chevy's Volt, Nissan's Leaf, Tesla's Roadster and Toyota's Prius.
Nothing on natural gas. Of course, I'm just referring to the menu listings and not the coverage. Writer John Voelcker offers some of the best green car coverage on the web, and his piece on the Honda CNG is a great backgrounder on the only production natural gas vehicle offered in the country. The page design reflects interest.
Honda enters the fray
Yet, the Civic CNG, which just received its nationwide rollout in late 2011, may change some minds. James R. Healey of USA Today gave one a test drive and debates its the pros and cons. He says the main downside is price (at $26,925 still cheaper than a Volt, Leaf or average hybrid) and finding a fueling station.
"Heroic cuts in emissions and fuel costs, but too expensive and too many compromises for most people," Healey writes.
Maybe that will change. Gas prices are expected to climb and possibly break some records this summer.