While the national average price of gasoline is now $3.60, some residents of Utah are happily filling up on compressed natural gas (CNG) at $0.63 per gallon. That’s the country’s lowest price for CNG, which has understandably caused a surge in demand for vehicles running on a fuel that one man described as “practically free.”
So far, CNG vehicles haven’t made a blip on my radar screen, even though the group Natural Gas Vehicles for America (NGVA) estimates there are 150,000 NGVs on U.S. roads today and over 5 million worldwide. It took a phone call from sunny Southern Utah to clue me in to recent developments, which include a local refueling station overflowing with CNG-hungry vehicles.
There are about 1500 CNG refueling stations in the US, which is about the same number of commercial stations offering E85 ethanol blends. Utah has a total of 91 CNG filling stations, most of which are reserved for commercial fleet use, but there are 20 open to the public. According to an article by the Associated Press, you could drive Utah from top to bottom and hit 22 different stations offering compressed natural gas.
The NGVA also says there are 50 different manufacturers producing 150 models of light, medium and heavy-duty vehicles and engines that run on compressed natural gas. Unfortunately, there’s only one for sale to individuals, Honda’s Civic GX, and it’s only offered in California and New York (although Utah could be next on the list). California ranks highest in number of CNG refueling stations, but fuel prices are also higher—more like $2.50 per gallon.
There’s so much demand now in Utah for CNG-ready vehicles that Honda can’t make them fast enough. Savvy customers are buying the vehicles from other states and shipping them back for sale. But waiting for a new Honda Civic GX to role off the assembly line isn’t the only option. It’s also possible to convert a used vehicle to run on natural gas, like Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who converted his state-owned Chevy Suburban. And for either used or new vehicles, the tax incentives are substantial. Combining state and federal tax credits in Utah can almost completely offset the approximately $7,000 difference in price between regular and CNG-ready vehicles.
One of the major benefits of using compressed natural gas is a significant reduction in emissions when compared to gasoline. Compressed natural gas is touted as the “cleanest burning” alternative fuel available, since the simplicity of the methane molecule reduces tailpipe emissions of different pollutants by 35-97%. Not quite as dramatic is the reduction in net greenhouse-gas emissions, which is about the same as corn-grain ethanol at about a 20% reduction over gasoline.
The big question in Utah is whether or not the infrastructure can keep up with the amount of new CNG cars on the road. Utah already has 5,000 CNG vehicles, up from none a few years ago, essentially overwhelming the refueling network.
Then, of course, there’s the question of natural gas supply. According to the NGVA, worldwide supply of natural gas is almost infinite, assuming we can tap into methane hydrate ice formations at the bottom of the arctic oceans. If we can’t figure that out, we can just drill more (please note the sarcastic tone):
…there are huge natural gas resources on public lands in the U.S. that currently are off-limits to drilling. These include areas a hundred miles or more off the coast of Florida and America’s east and west coast as well as the Rocky Mountain area. The current run-up in natural gas prices is increasing political pressure to allow gas exploration and production in these areas.
More promising is the potential of bio-methane, or the production of methane from the natural breakdown of plant material, something already captured by landfills in the US. The NGVA says that waste biomass could supply enough natural gas for about 11 million natural gas vehicles, which is approximately 5% of the nation’s automotive fleet.
This is certainly something to watch out for, and maybe even participate in if you live in Utah. Now that it’s got my attention, I’ll be taking a closer look at the Honda Civic GX this week, a car that has been called the cleanest burning vehicle on the planet.
More on Compressed Natural Gas Vehicles:
For more on this story, see Natural-gas vehicles hot in Utah, where the fuel is cheap. Also see How Natural Gas Vehicles Work for more background.