Posted: February 04, 2013

New hope for natural gas autos

Eric Peterson

A market dilemma

The Colorado Energy Office’s Schroeder says there is a "chicken-and-egg problem" with natural gas vehicles: Infrastructure is the egg and NGVs are the chicken, or maybe it’s the other way around.

"There are no vehicles out there," says Schroeder, thus there aren’t many service stations where you can fill up on natural gas. "The feeling is we can bring both the chicken and the egg together."

Beyond the MOU, Schroeder’s vision of chicken-egg oneness might be catalyzed by legislation. Signed into law last May, Colorado HB-1258 deregulates the resale of natural gas and electricity at service stations.

But there are still only about 20 retailers where you can fill up on compressed or liquefied natural gas in Colorado, most of them on the Front Range.

More are on the way. Clean Energy will have 150 trucking-oriented filling locations coast to coast by the end of 2013 and Shell has plans for another 100. There is also the possibility of at-home fueling for households with an appliance like the BRC FuelMaker Phill.

NGVAmerica’s Kolodziej says early diesel customers traded convenience in finding a pump for high mileage and were willing to drive to a truck stop in the post-Arab oil embargo 1970s. He says NGV infrastructure will follow a similar curve. "There are 150,000 gas stations in the U.S.," he says "People assume we have to blanket the entire country. That’s not true. If there were 5,000 stations offering natural gas, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, but there are only 1,000 right now. But we certainly don’t have to have 150,000."

Instead, he says a slight fraction will suffice, noting that Los Angeles has about 100 stations offering compressed or liquefied natural gas. "It’s not a surprise that Honda sells more natural-gas Civics in L.A. than anywhere else."

It follows that Kolodziej sees NGVs will first emerge as a commuter-friendly second or third car in the consumer market, and not a good option for one-car households. "We want to go after people with two or three cars to do things they do around town." After 200 miles, they can rely on vehicle No. 1 or No. 2 and not have to worry about where to fill up on natural gas on a trip to the Grand Canyon.

Matchmaking, NGV style

As the Denver-based manager of market development for Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy, the country’s No. 2 natural gas producer, Dan Genovese is striving to "be the Chuck Woolery" of the industry to make a love connection between the private and public sector and get natural gas-fueled vehicles off of the drawing boards and onto the roads.

"We’re going to pull this beast through the needle," Genovese says. "We’re pushing and pulling the market."

His lofty projection is that natural gas could replace 15 percent of the nation’s motor fuels in five short years. Both economic and environmental concerns are driving the trend. "There’s kind of a double bonus," Genovese says. "If you adopt a fuel that has 25 percent to 30 percent less of a carbon footprint, it’s a double win: more miles per dollar and less carbon."

Genovese says companies aren’t going to be able to hit new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, calling for 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 with incremental increases in interceding years, "so they look for credits. Electric vehicles will give them credits, and now natural gas vehicles give them credits."

If fleets adopt NGVs in a big way, the pathway to the consumer becomes a much shorter and easier route. "We suspect that natural gas vehicles will be cheaper and easier for consumers to adopt," says Genovese on why he sees the NGV as a better bet than the EV. "Auto manufacturers might find that an easier way to get credits. We think there’s a lot of optimism and opportunity for natural gas vehicles with auto manufacturers."

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Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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