Natural-gas powered cars: Who even knows they exist?
By Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — Imagine paying as little as $1.25 a gallon to run your car.
Not for gasoline. Instead, you would pump a fuel that's readily available, North American-produced and virtually pollution-free. Many motorists could even fill up in their own garages every night just like they would power-up with one of the gas-electric plug-in hybrids still under development.
YOUR THOUGHTS: Would you buy a car that runs on natural gas?
PHOTOS: Powered by natural gas
Now, what if this magical car were available today, and no one cared. Not government officials. Not auto executives. Not consumers. Not even some environmentalists.
Therein lies the paradox of the natural-gas powered car. Most major automakers offered them in the 1990s, primarily for government and corporate fleets. Back then, smog was the chief national concern. Yet today, when natural gas offers a common-sense, immediate and ecological relief valve to the nation's dependence on foreign oil, only one major automaker still makes a production model — and sales stink.
FIND MORE STORIES IN: Ohio Southern California Midwest Toyota SUVs Honda Mike Eaves Green Car Journal Ron Cogan East Liberty Cheap Fuel Gauge Report Natural Gas Supply Association
Only about 1,000 of the more than 300,000 Civic subcompacts that Honda (HMC) sells every year in the USA are the natural-gas GX version. Most still go to corporate or government fleets. Consumers can buy them only through select dealers in California and New York.
Some natural-gas proponents quietly seethe. They feel natural gas is being overlooked for cars, pickups and SUVs at a time when the nation's energy supply is dwindling and gasoline prices stair-step ever upward.
"It's like shouting in the wind sometimes," says Ron Cogan, publisher of the Green Car Journal and a big believer in natural gas. "It seems crazy we are not exploring more natural-gas vehicles, because the technology is here."
Natural-gas cars have some significant drawbacks. There aren't enough stations selling natural gas to make them practical for cross-country drives. They don't have as much driving range as gasoline-powered cars. And their fuel tanks take up more space in the trunk of the cars.
But every alternative-energy vehicle has disadvantages.
Gasoline-electric hybrids have received attention because they are touted by Japanese automaking giant Toyota. They are being introduced haltingly by other automakers because their high-tech battery packs and dual gas-electric power plants make them costlier and less profitable to produce.
Ethanol vs. natural gas for cars
E85 is backed in farm states because its 85% ethanol content is made from corn. But ethanol is heavily subsidized by the government. And it, too, is available at a limited number of stations — 1,200 at present — mostly in the Midwest. Ethanol's growing popularity threatens to drive up food prices even as farmers finish planting the most acreage in corn since 1944.
Automakers and government agencies are pouring billions into development of hydrogen-powered vehicles. But ironically, the vast majority of hydrogen made in the USA right now is derived from converting natural gas.
Advocates call compressed natural gas, or CNG for short, one of the nation's best-kept secrets when it comes to powering cars. "It bugs the hell out of me" that more isn't being done to get the word out, says Mike Eaves of the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition.
Natural gas is:
•Cheap. In Los Angeles this week, one chain was charging $2.55 for the natural-gas equivalent of a gallon of gasoline. By comparison, self-serve regular gasoline was hitting records, averaging $3.49 a gallon Tuesday in L.A. and California as a whole, said AAA's daily Fuel Gauge Report. California currently has the nation's highest fuel prices.
Steve Ellis, alternative fuels manager for Honda's U.S. operation, says he has never heard of an instance in which natural-gas prices exceeded those of gasoline.
With a home unit made by a company called FuelMaker, refilling a car overnight from a home's own natural-gas supply can drop the price even more. In California right now, the price equates to about $1.25 in natural gas for the equivalent gallon of gasoline.
The home unit, called Phill, mounts on a garage wall and is about the size of an old pay telephone. It costs about $3,900, but is eligible for a $1,000 federal tax credit and, at least in Southern California, another $2,000 in local incentives.
Honda GX starts at $24,590 and is eligible for a $4,000 federal tax credit. It compares feature-wise to a midlevel, gasoline-powered $17,760 Civic LX. The 2007 natural-gas GX is government rated at 28 miles a gallon in the city, 39 on the highway.
Some dealers carry them in stock. Others require that customers order them, because there is so little demand.
Honda says if there were a spurt in orders, more can be made because they come right down the line at the automaker's East Liberty, Ohio, plant like other Civic models.
•Plentiful. While natural gas isn't renewable like ethanol, there's lots of it. Reserves point to at least a 60-year supply, says the Natural Gas Supply Association. Only 56% of crude oil for U.S. refineries comes from North America, compared with 98% of the natural gas consumed. About half of all American homes are equipped for natural gas.
•Environmentally friendly. Natural gas creates so few emissions that Civic GX is the cleanest internal-combustion powered car on the road. It's greener than a Toyota Prius gasoline-electric hybrid and tied with the Civic hybrid, according to the Energy Department rankings for 2007 models.
Prius and the two Civics are the only vehicles clean enough to qualify for stickers that allow solo drivers to take them in California's car pool lanes. But the allotment of stickers has run out for the hybrids. Only Civic GX can still receive one.
Ellis says that on a smoggy day, the GX's exhaust is cleaner than the polluted air its engine sucks in. Natural gas is more than 20% better for carbon dioxide emissions, blamed for climate change, than comparable gasoline engines.
•Ready to go. Other major automakers sell natural-gas-powered cars in Europe, Asia, South America and elsewhere, just not in the USA. General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner mentioned natural gas at a Switzerland auto show in March as one of the alternative fuels the automaker has intensified efforts to develop for foreign markets.
About 1,500 fueling stations nationwide
There are about 150,000 natural-gas vehicles in the USA, compared with 5 million worldwide, says NGVAmerica, an advocacy group for natural-gas-powered vehicles.
Natural gas is held back by the limited but growing number of fueling stations. Nationwide, there are about 1,500 natural-gas vehicle stations, about half of which sell to the public. California has about 200 where consumers are allowed to buy fuel as they would at any regular gasoline station, Honda says.
One chain, Clean Energy, has expanded to 170 stations in 75 markets. Oil baron T. Boone Pickens, who is a big shareholder in the company, says he got into the natural-gas fueling business nearly two decades ago because it is "cheap, clean and domestic. I figured that would sell."
What he didn't count on was habit. "People did not want to change."
Automakers complain that when they made natural-gas vehicles, no one bought them, except bureaucrats for government fleets. Besides a shortage of stations, consumers are turned off by limited range — about 200 miles a tankful for today's GX — and a fuel tank that eats up trunk space. A driver can carry only about two small suitcases upright in the GX.
The auto industry's past interest was driven primarily by the need to try to fulfill government requirements at the time designed to spur development of clean alternative energy. Automakers saw interest fall apart when rules were modified to allow government fleet operators to switch from natural gas to flex-fuel vehicles, which burn either E85 ethanol or regular gasoline.
Ford Motor (F) phased out natural gas pickups and vans after the 2004 model year, but it still does after-sales CNG conversions in India. GM (GM) stopped sales in the USA as well.
"The (sales) volume went down every year," GM spokeswoman Nancy Libby says. "Even when Ford and Chrysler stopped making natural-gas vehicles before us, it didn't change that fact."
That was before the advent of home fueling. It was also ahead of the soaring gasoline prices of the last couple of years and President Bush's call for a 20% reduction in gasoline use.
Still, no enthusiasm. Automakers dismiss natural gas today as a clumsy distraction from the goal of developing an entirely pollution-free car powered by hydrogen.
"CNG faces the same challenges as hydrogen but without the benefits of zero emissions," says DaimlerChrysler spokesman Nick Cappa. Chrysler stopped making natural-gas-powered cars for U.S. sales in 1996 and has no immediate plans to sell hydrogen-powered vehicles, still in development.
Honda sees natural gas differently. The automaker says the experience that it's gaining with GX is a stepping stone to hydrogen, which is also a gas. Fuel cells "are the best and ultimate solution, but how do we get there?" Honda's Ellis says. "GX is that place holder today."
The problem is that too few consumers are holding a place. Honda officials, like other natural-gas believers, express frustration. "It's dumbfounding to me that there's been less attention paid to it than it deserves," Ellis adds.
Partly that's because of the natural-gas- vehicle lobby itself. Starting about a decade ago, the industry decided to switch its marketing emphasis from the light-duty vehicle market — cars and trucks driven by consumers and government operators — to fleets of mostly heavy commercial vehicles. Those operations are far more profitable. A fleet operator can install its own central fueling dock and rack up savings on vehicles such as buses or trash trucks that were burning 10,000 gallons or more of diesel fuel annually.
The strategy worked. The use of natural gas as a motor-vehicle fuel has tripled in the past decade, the Energy Information Administration reports. For instance, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Los Angeles now runs about 2,300 large buses on natural gas, having moved away from diesel almost entirely.
"We can make an immediate impact with fleet vehicles today," says NGVAmerica President Richard Kolodziej. "It could take us decades to get a natural-gas fueling structure that could do everyone's car."
Option for big diesels like trash trucks
Natural gas could never replace gasoline. But it is a worthy substitute for a good chunk, maybe 20% or 30%, of the high-fuel-use market, Kolodziej says. Some environmentalists agree on the strategy.
Natural gas is a fossil fuel best suited to being "targeted to where it has the biggest public-health bang for the buck," which is to replace big diesels like trash trucks, says Roland Hwang, vehicle policy director for the National Resources Defense Council. For the consumer market, "The window of opportunity has passed on natural gas."
Honda deserves credit for continuing to market a natural-gas car, says Tim Carmichael, president of the Coalition for Clean Air, a California environmental-advocacy group. But consumers are still largely unaware of it, and the heavy-vehicle market holds more potential. Even a major oil executive whose company is involved in natural gas isn't enthusiastic. "It's going to require some sort of incentive before people go for it," says Shell Oil President John Hofmeister.
It didn't require much of an incentive, however, for 2003 Civic GX owner Jeff Church, 51, an airline pilot who lives in San Dimas, Calif. He says his natural-gas car, which he has driven about 53,000 miles, saves him a bundle. He estimates his home fueling unit delivers natural gas as cheap as 98 cents a gallon. The even bigger incentive is his car pool lane sticker, which allows him save 15 to 50 minutes zipping 42 miles from home to work at Los Angeles International Airport.
"For a lot of miles, it's the ideal vehicle," he says.