Under the Radar Replacement for Imported Oil

A few months ago, Republican Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee said that we need to find a replacement for imported oil in 10 years. Now that the economy is drifting into a recession, other candidates are proposing various economic stimulus programs.  I believe the most appropriate stimulus program would jump start an alternate fuel for America's cars.  It would also be a good way to respond to the hostility of the people in the countries currently exporting the most oil.

However, there is only one alternative energy source for cars that could have a significant impact on the problem in 10 years.   It is an old technology, but it has several advantages.  The only disadvantage is that it requires significantly more storage volume in a vehicle. 

I am talking about compressed natural gas (CNG), which is cheaper than gasoline, available from sources on this continent and has an existing distribution infrastructure.  Consumers can also save money by refueling at home with a device made by FuelMaker called Phill.  The installed cost of such a compressor is currently about $4000, but that cost should decline as the annual rate of installations increases.

CNG also burns much cleaner than gasoline while producing slightly less carbon dioxide.   If produced from plant material that would otherwise lie on the ground, it could even have a negative green-house gas footprint.  For example, a recent story in the New York Times questioned the wisdom of paying livestock farmers to deal with "mountains of excrement that their farms generate" and calling it "conservation."  But one of the chief byproducts of manure pits is methane, which is the principal component of natural gas.  Methane happens to be a potent green-house gas, so containing its emission from natural sources would be a plus for the environlment while burning it to power cars would still be carbon neutral.

The magnitude of the disadvantage can be seen by comparing the specifications of the gasoline-powered Honda Civic Sedan, which has a range of about 383 miles and a cargo volume of 12 cubic feet, with the natural-gas-powered Honda Civic GX, which has a cargo volume of 6 cubic feet and a range of approximately 220-250 miles.  Personally, I am not deterred so much by the lack of cargo space because my wife and I have 2 cars and we would probably keep our station wagon.

What does deter me more is the current lack of public re-fueling facilities.  Now, I would not anticipate driving a CNG-fueled car further than about 50 miles from our home in New Jersey, normally.   But I would still like to know that I could, in a pinch.  For example, if gasoline becomes scarce again, my wife and I could use it to drive up to Massachusetts, where we have family members living.  I think there are only a few places where we could buy CNG on such a trip now, so we might get stuck in Connecticut if one facility should be closed for some reason.

It would help if the service plazas on various toll roads and the Interstate Highway system were required to sell CNG.  Then I think I could drive a CNG-fueled car almost anywhere in the US provided I don't need to haul a lot of cargo and don't mind refueling about twice as often.  I asked Rich Kolodziej, who is president of NGVAmerica, if it would be difficult for the Federal Government to mandate the sale of CNG at Interstate Highway service plazas.  His response was that there are not enough natural-gas vehicles on the road to make it profitable.  NGVAmerica is primarily focused on "high fuel use commercial urban fleet vehicles.  Vehicles that return to home each day."  The only problem with this strategy of addressing the “low-hanging fruit” first is that it could take longer than 10 years.

I think this is a situation where intelligent government policy could make a big difference.

(last updated February 1, 2008)

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Copyright 2008, Terence J. Nelson