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Page added on May 27, 2012

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Ramping up to use natural gas as a motor fuel

Ramping up to use natural gas as a motor fuel thumbnail

In the 1990s, natural gas was promoted as the motor fuel of the future. Utilities opened refueling stations and government agencies traded in their dirty diesel trucks for vehicles fueled with clean compressed natural gas (CNG).

The Lower Merion School District committed itself in a big way. It converted half its fleet of 113 buses to natural gas. The U.S. Department of Energy, which subsidized the conversion, called it “Pennsylvania’s primary success story for alternative fuels.” It recently took delivery of nine new CNG buses.

But some early adopters of natural-gas vehicles took an exit off the highway to the future.

The first purple Philly Phlash tourist buses were fueled by natural gas, but they were replaced by diesel vehicles modified to look like trolleys. The Upper Merion Police Department gave up on natural-gas cruisers because of their limited range — officers ran low on fuel in the middle of their shifts — and they had to drive too far to find an open fuel station.

“We gave it a try, but our needs weren’t met,” said Lt. Jim Early of the Upper Merion police.

Perhaps the biggest casualty was Philadelphia Gas Works, the city-owned utility that has a stake in selling natural gas. PGW acquired more than 100 natural gas vehicles and built three fuel stations. But by 2008, it had disposed of its aging fleet and closed the refueling sites.

“It wasn’t feasible for us to continue,” said Barry O’Sullivan, a PGW spokesman. He said that manufacturers were no longer selling suitable CNG vehicles and that the price of natural gas in 2008 was too high.

How quickly things have changed.

Now, with natural gas selling for half the cost of diesel because of new production from formations like Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, government and industry are once again ramping up efforts to promote natural gas as a motor fuel.

President Obama and Gov. Corbett, citing the desire to reduce reliance on imported oil and promote domestic natural gas production, have endorsed plans to subsidize the build-out of a natural-gas fueling infrastructure.

On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission will hold a forum at Drexel University to explore policies to support investments in natural gas and electric vehicles.

Natural-gas advocates say they’re focusing their efforts on encouraging operators of big fleets of heavy vehicles and long-haul trucks to convert to natural gas. High-mileage consumers can more quickly recover the higher cost of natural gas vehicles with the savings from natural gas, which sells for about $2 for the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline.

Gas producers say that shale-gas supplies will remain robust and prices stable for years, which they hope assures fleet operators that their investments in CNG vehicles will pay off.

“The new generation of CNG vehicles have gotten better as the technology has improved,” said Richard R. Kolodziej, president of Natural Gas Vehicles for America.

Not everyone is enthusiastic. Some clean-air advocates, who had embraced natural gas vehicles because they emit less pollution than conventionally fueled vehicles, have grown uneasy with the vehicles because of the association with hydraulic fracturing, the vilified shale-gas production technique. They also say natural gas drilling emits large amounts of methane into the atmosphere, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide produced from combustion.

“The president has proposed we switch trucks to natural gas, and I’m here to tell you today that every truck we switch to natural gas damages the atmosphere,” Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said at the IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates annual conference in March.

Some green-energy advocates also regard natural-gas vehicles as rivals to electric ones in the passenger car market, though the electric vehicles are not competitive for hauling freight because of the limited range of battery technology.

“You’re not going to run an 18-wheeler with an electric vehicle,” said Kolodziej.

The Lower Merion School District has used CNG buses since 1995. The initial appeal was to reduce complaints from residents about the pollution from the diesel buses.

“There’s no longer a big plume of smoke when we start up the vehicles in the morning,” said Gerald Rineer, the district’s transportation supervisor.

The buses are also much quieter. “They hum,” he said.

But the lower fuel costs are offset by the higher up-front cost for the buses — a natural gas bus costs about $134,000 compared with $104,000 for a conventional diesel. Natural gas vehicles also have higher maintenance costs, said Bryan Bohn, the district’s lead mechanic.

Lower Merion’s school buses each only rack up about 15,000 miles a year. Higher-mileage vehicles would generate a bigger fuel savings.

“If you’re putting enormous miles on your vehicles, you have a payback of less than three years,” said Kolodziej.

Big fuel savings have induced such companies as United Parcel Service Inc. and AT&T Inc. to move into natural gas vehicles.

One of the biggest adopters is Waste Management Inc., the nation’s biggest trash hauler, which says that 80 percent of its new garbage trucks are fueled by natural gas. Waste Management opened a fueling station in Camden last year, where 80 of 100 trucks will use CNG by the end of June. The company plans to open a CNG station in Bristol later this year and one in Trenton in 2013.

“We’re going all in on CNG,” said George McGrath, a Waste Management spokesman.

The Waste Management stations are also open to the public, part of a growing network of stations to serve the market. Clean Energy Fuels Corp., associated with oilman T. Boone Pickens, operates 273 stations nationwide.

Demand for CNG is growing locally, said Cathy Engel Menendez, spokeswoman for Peco Energy Co.

Peco operates six refueling stations to serve the utility’s 15 CNG vehicles, and five of the stations are open to the public. Peco had had only four outside customers who consumed a meager 120 gallons in January 2011. That has grown to 30 customers this year — some own more than one vehicle — who bought an average of 500 gallons a month, she said.


14 Comments on "Ramping up to use natural gas as a motor fuel"

  1. DC on Sun, 27th May 2012 4:42 pm 

    /cues Kenz to show up with his canned C+P its time to end oils monopoly on transporation fuels in


    Psst, those guys that produce nat-gas, all part of the same fossil-fuel cartel. Different dept. Same bunch. Junior dept if anything.

  2. Max Reid on Sun, 27th May 2012 6:15 pm 

    Things have changed a lot. 20 million CNG powered vehicles were there World wide.

    Shale gas has increased Gas supply along with Methanation process which can convert many plants and food waste to Gas.

    Also the Oil prices have settled above $100 / barrel with Saudi Arabia struggling to increase oil capacity. We have no other go, but to go Natgas.

  3. John Orr on Sun, 27th May 2012 7:47 pm 

    After reading, not just this article, I still don’t know what’s an opinion to invest in…..anyone got a link a bit more decisive to invest???

  4. Arthur on Sun, 27th May 2012 10:07 pm 

    Holland is gearing up for rapid growth in using natural gas for driving:

  5. The Practician on Mon, 28th May 2012 12:00 am 

    @ John Orr, you should probably just put all your retirement savings in Chesapeake Energy.

  6. James on Mon, 28th May 2012 1:02 am 

    As a Geology Technician, I can tell you that even though natural gas looks good now, we will experience higher prices as we use more of it to heat our homes, generate electricity, run vehicles, and other uses. Natural gas also has a bad habit of having a well doing good one day and the next day goes dead with no warning. I hope everyone enjoys drinking water from wells. The fracking process is not a good way to go. The wells will pollute underground aquifers from using the chemicals. Also, salt water will seep into the wells because the fracking process breaks up the rock strata, unleashing oil, salt water (brine), and sediments into the water sources. Some wells will experience dissolved natural gas in the well water, and if you were to take a match to the faucet as you turn it on, it will flame up as the water runs. You can google this phenomenon on YouTube. When we had the last Oil Crisis in the 70s. A lot of cities and state governments converted over to natural gas because it was cheaper than oil at the time. However, it cost a lot to convert each vehicle over, and the equipment always had problems. The dispensing equipment was not easy to use because you had to go through venting steps to get the gas into the tank. I am sure customers are going to want to go through that hassle. Both the vehicle and and pumps had to be grounded, because if there is a spark, the whole place will go to flames. Natural gas isn’t as energy dense as gasoline or diesel, so you will have to use more of the natural gas to make up for what gasoline/diesel delivered in terms of mileage. So, is Natural gas really the way to go?

  7. keith on Mon, 28th May 2012 1:45 am 

    It sounds to me like an ad campaign for natural gas. Push what you have to sell. Never sell something that gives the customer independence. Always sell things that force the customer to keep on coming back. Where’s geothermal? Strawbale homes? Solar? Wind? Hydro? how about not owning every kitchen gadget that requires electricity to go. Do you really need that 70″ plasma screen? Thay need you to own it. To keep you hooked! Don’t get me wrong we need energy to live today in our densely populated cities. But how much energy is wasted on things we don’t need to get along daily. Push product, thats all the above piece is saying.

  8. BillT on Mon, 28th May 2012 3:07 am 

    This ‘switch’ is a joke that will hurt the fools who think they can keep driving to Walmart to buy that plastic junk from Asia. 20 million gas vehicles out of 1 billion+ cars in the world. 2%?

    It makes sense for buses that can carry enough for a days use and then return to the depot to refuel at every night, but it will not run trains, huge mining machines, or anything that requires real power.

    Go ahead and convert…and in a year or so when the lawsuits catch up to fraking and the wells start drying up, NG will be the price of gasoline and you will still have to look for a place to refuel.

  9. Arthur on Mon, 28th May 2012 8:37 am 

    They probably can postpone the total crash of the car economy for a few years or maybe even a decade, foolishly keeping up the untenable dream of ‘economic ggrowth for ever’. What we will see in the mean time is that gradually people with lower income will be forced to abandon their cars as the cost will become too high, making room for the richer people to continue to drive a little longer, as there will be a lid on the prices due to demand destruction.

  10. Arthur on Mon, 28th May 2012 8:42 am 

    Conversion here in HOlland costs at least 2500 euro or 3100 $.

    The installation operates with pressures of 200 bar!

    Price comparisson CNG – diesel – benzine:
    0.93 – 1.49 – 1.82 (euro/liter equivalent)

    Massive ‘switching’ no doubt will lead to increased taxing of CNG.

  11. BillT on Mon, 28th May 2012 1:04 pm 

    Increased taxes are coming to the Us soon also. Right after the elections. Why? Because they can abd they have to to pay for the thugs…er…military they send into oil countries to keep other countries (China) from getting it.

    Add up the taxes for gas outright, the taxes to support the trillion dollar military complex, the billions in subsidies to Big Petro, and the cost of laws to keep the rigs drilling in insane places and you are already paying $10 plus per gallon. Oh, and don’t forget the blood of our paid thugs…er…soldiers that is shed to get you to Walmart in your SUV.

  12. SOS on Mon, 28th May 2012 3:23 pm 

    Lets put peak politics asided.

    Chesapeake is debt ridden. It may be a decent investment but look over their financials and prospects before you put any money in. Cline is another good company to look at. They are the nations largest installer of LNG fueling stations. LNG is also shipped by truck to storage tanks. This conversion is under way.

    Because prices are so low many of the NG producers/suppliers are struggling for profitability it may be a good time to buy into some of these companies. If you like to buy low and sell high there is opportunity in the sector.

    Its too bad peak politics are causing the flare-off of natural gas in the North Dakota oil fields. This gas would be generating your electricity if anti energy politics hadnt shut down plans for the Big Stone plant in South Dakota.

    With the huge supplies now available gas will remain low priced compared to other fuels. Our president is the peak leader of peak politics and peak oil. He may speak in favor of LGN because he knows most people would think he was crazy not to, but he is leading the effort to shut down these supples and force us all to drive hugely expensive and abusrdly subsidized electric cars! LOL.

  13. Red on Red on Mon, 28th May 2012 3:32 pm 

    Natural gas sells at the equivalent of oil at $10 a barrel. That’s a big temptation for anybody with brains.

    And suddenly, making fertilizers and plastics and petrochemicals suddenly became a lot cheaper. Not to mention manufacturing hundreds of other essentials.

    Whenever things like this come along to disrupt my deeply held beliefs in peak oil, I just laugh them off and whistle a tune. It helps.

  14. Rollin on Mon, 28th May 2012 8:03 pm 

    I agree with James the Geology Tech, way too many downsides with direct NG use in vehicles and with fracking.

    Looks to me like they are going to do everything but go for the real solutions. Huge amounts of resources, time and money will be spent over the next 20 years converting vehicles to NG just to find out the gas wells are not producing anymore. Meanwhile, because we are heavily invested in NG vehicles the DOE and Steve Chen will be pushing hard for methane hydrate production. Scary.

    With the continued use of fossil fuels, tipping points will be reached much sooner and nature, which had been fairly kind to us, will slap us down. There will be no time and no recourse if this path is followed.

    There are other ways to achieve this “energy independence” goal that give us a chance to avoid tipping points or at least put them off longer and give us some more time to act properly.

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