13 States Ask Automakers to Rev Up Natural Gas Vehicles

The governors of Oklahoma and Colorado, representing 13 states pushing automakers to produce more cars and trucks that run on compressed natural gas (CNG), this week took their cause to Detroit.

At first blush, their agenda is practical: many state and municipal governments are investing in alternative transportation technologies including CNG, hybrids, plug-in electric and modified diesel engines to improve fleet efficiency.

But the focus on natural gas is also based on self-interest: most of these states have rich natural gas resources and would like to see demand increase. Aside from Oklahoma and Colorado, the initiative has the support of Lousiana, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Utah, Maine, New Mexico, West Virginia, Kentucky, Texas, Ohio and Mississippi.

Natural gas, which is cheaper and cleaner-burning than gasoline, has been used increasingly in buses and heavy trucks over the last decade, but it hasn’t yet made its way into mainstream light-duty trucks and passenger cars. The main use of natural gas today is for heating, cooking and power generation, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). Only 0.1% is used for transportation, something the states aim to change.

Globally, there are about 15 million vehicles that run on natural gas – about 250,000 in the U.S – mostly fleet vehicles such as buses and delivery trucks.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin (a Republican) and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (a Democrat) met July 16 with executives from General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler to advocate their agenda.

"By meeting in person with automakers in Detroit, we can discuss in-depth the level of interest from the 13 states that have signed on to this initiative and jump start the process," says Fallin. "The development of CNG vehicles continues to be hampered by a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario. Consumers won’t buy CNG vehicles while there is limited fueling infrastructure and high vehicle price points, and manufacturers won’t wade into the market if there is not sufficient consumer demand. Purchasing vehicles for state automobile fleets will help encourage development of fueling infrastructure and break through the barriers holding back the development of CNG vehicles."

There are only about 500 public CNG filling stations in the US, according to DOE (Another 500 or so exist for private uses). That’s significantly less than the build-out happening for electric vehicle charging infrastructure. CarCharging Group, soon to become the largest US provider of electric vehicle charging services, has more 1,000 locations alone.

The states involved in the CNG initiative are taking individual steps to make CNG vehicles more enticing to consumers and, by extension, to automakers. For example, Colorado’s Governor Hickenlooper signed a law in May that makes it easier for grocery stores and shopping malls to install and sell alternative fuels. West Virginia plans to convert at least a portion of its fleet to CNG trucks and cars.

Each of the states involved in the push has made an initial commitment to buy 5,000 CNG vehicles each year.

"Natural gas vehicles provide clean, affordable transportation that can increase our nation’s energy security and bolster economic development," says Hickenlooper. "We believe there is strong interest in natural gas vehicles and we want to leverage the collective purchasing power of state fleets to jumpstart that market."

Natural gas prices, which are at all time lows, are roughly $1.25 per gallon cheaper than gasoline, but there are few CNG passenger vehicle options.

Honda is the only company that sells a natural gas passenger vehicle in the US, the Civic GX. It’s sold about 13,000 of them over the years. Chrysler and GM both plan hybrid truck models for this year that will switch between gasoline and natural gas.

General Motors has been working with Westport Innovations on natural gas engine technologies for more than a year and the two companies just signed another development agreement.

Home Refueling

As part of the drive to make natural gas cars attractive to the average car buyer, DOE is working on a reasonably priced home refueling station.

DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) just announced an award to General Electric and other partners to develop one.

ARPA-E’s target is to bring down the cost to buy a refueling station from the current $5000 to $500, and also to cut re-fueling time from 5-8 hours to less than 1 hour.

"If we can meet our cost targets, the price of a home refueling station would be less than typical appliances in the home such as a dishwasher or stove," says Anna Lis Laursen, project leader and chemical engineer at GE Global Research.

The researchers are working on a simple system with few moving parts that operates quietly and virtually maintenance-free.

The goal of the cost-shared $2.3 million effort is to deliver a fully functioning at-home refueling station unit.

GE recently introduced CNG In A BoxTM technology which takes natural gas from a pipeline and compresses it on-site at an industrial location or at a traditional automotive refilling station and turns it into CNG, making it faster, easier and less expensive for users to fuel up natural gas vehicles.

The Other Natural Gas Agenda

There is a national rally against natural gas fracking in Washington DC on July 28, "Stop the Frack Attack."

Another rally is planned in NYC on August 25-27, and in Philadelphia in September.

Organizers Mark Ruffalo and Josh Fox say while we need to move as rapidly as possible away from all fossil fuels, stopping the push for the most dangerous energy like fracked gas, tar sands oil, drilling in the Arctic and mountaintop-removal coal, will be a huge step forward toward making big renewable energy possible.

These most extreme forms of energy, all coming to a head now, will otherwise greatly impede full scale transition to renewables, while making the worst consequences of climate change inevitable and fast.

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