True believers (like tycoon T. Boone Pickens) claim the abundance of inexpensive natural gas from shale will cause the first major shift in transportation since diesel replaced gasoline more than a half century ago.
Owners of large fleets of heavy-duty trucks certainly see the advantage of switching to clean natural gas that costs about one-third as much as gasoline or diesel on an energy-equivalent basis.
There are already 250,000 natural gas vehicles (NGVs) on the road in Canada and the United States, which is less than 0.1 per cent of total vehicles. They're city buses, garbage trucks and delivery vans mostly.
But if you can get natural gas out of the pipe at your home and pump it into your car at a gasoline energy equivalent cost of 33 cents a litre, wouldn't you jump at the chance?
One enthusiastic salesman of natural gas compressors, which let you do just that, told me, "It's too good to be true, but it is true."
Well, let's take a closer look. It is not impossible to convert a gasoline engine to a CNG (compressed natural gas) engine. You have to find a shop qualified to do it as there are virtually no cars that can be purchased directly from the manufacturer with a CNG-ready engine.
Once you have the engine and fuel systems and controls sorted out, then there's the fundamental problem of the energy density of natural gas. In order to put the same amount of energy on board, you'd need a CNG tank 3-1/2 times as large as the gas tank it would replace. So there goes the trunk or the back seat.
CNG supporters have decided the right way to go is with bi-fuel vehicles. They'll install a reasonably sized CNG tank that will give 50 or 60 km of range because that is all the great majority of people drive in a day. As well, there would be a gasoline tank and an automatic control that switches the engine to gasoline for longer runs when the CNG runs out.
But mostly you'd make it home on the CNG and attach your little natural gas compressor to refill overnight. All your daily running around would be done as though you were spending 33 cents a litre on gasoline instead of the buck-thirty or whatever today's price is.
But a properly installed conversion of your car to CNG will run anywhere from $7,500 to $10,000 and then you'll have to buy the home fuelling compressor that will be at least another $10,000. So you've sunk $20,000 for the joy of getting 33 cents a litre "gas" for short drives. You'll need years of short drives for the pay back.
Honda is the only manufacturer selling a CNG car that's ready to go to consumers and it is only selling a handful of them, as an experiment really. It is a "dedicated" CNG Honda Civic. That means it's CNG only – not a bi-fuel car. Having one tank – CNG only – means it can be bigger and give more range.
"The Civic Natural Gas sedan's fuel tank also occupies more than half the trunk and, once filled, it holds the energy of just eight gallons of gasoline. Honda rates the car's cruising range at 220 to 250 miles," says Consumer Reports.
There are so few CNG filling stations – seven in Ontario – it really means you have to have your own setup at home. Natural gas is the only fuel approved for home refuelling here. Enbridge flogs Vehicle Refuelling Appliances, which must be installed outdoors with a hose to fuel your vehicle in your garage.
This allows refuelling overnight or while the vehicle is not in use, completely unattended. Once you connect it, everything is automatic, including the shutdown of the system when the vehicle's CNG tank is full.
I'd like to be the first kid on my block with a CNG car because I love the idea of 33 cents a litre "gas." but it doesn't make sense.
It's a great fuel at a great price, but for now it is to be enjoyed by fleet owners. Maybe small fleet owners, too. If I was a contractor with three or four trucks running around, I'd be onto this, at least until the tax department finds a way to double or triple the price of the gas to capture road tax.
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