Keep On Trucking With Natural Gas

Electric cars and hybrids get all the media coverage.

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.

Cutting emissions

Exhaust emissions from CNG 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. CNG or LNG 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.

Finding opportunity

Companies are beginning to see opportunity, especially since the EIA says the fuel, on average, costs 42 percent less than diesel fuel on an energy equivalent basis and is expected to cost 50 percent less by 2035.

A Belmont, Mass.-based company has developed a duel fuel system for heavy-duty diesel trucks that allows them burn up to 80 percent natural gas.
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“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, a company vice president, 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… 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 CNG trucks have limited range? Thomson says with new large tanks and his company’s technology, “that’s no longer a problem.”

The alternative 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.

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