There is no denying the fast-growing appeal of electric vehicles (EVs). There are now over 226,000 plug-in vehicles on US roads with nine manufacturers offering 17 highway-capable models to choose from. According to DOE, the number of EV charging stations has swelled to 8,452 nationally not including another 20,552 charging outlets. With the Tesla Model S, the Nissan Leaf, and the Chevy Volt leading the charge, EVs are certainly getting the bulk of everyone’s mindshare.
However, lingering in the shadows is the prospect of natural gas vehicles (NGVs). The bulk of NGV activity is currently in heavy-duty transportation such as trucks, buses and maritime vessels. This is due in large part to the heavy tanks needed to store natural gas, whether compressed (CNG) or liquid (LNG). NGVAmerica indicates that there are over 140,000 NGVs on US roads supported by only 727 CNG stations nationally. A closer look indicates that almost all are vehicle conversions from gasoline power, which is one of the appeals of using natural gas. The only passenger NGV currently on the market is Honda’s Civic Natural Gas (formerly GX). However, there has been some recent activity that indicates passenger NGVs are not just going to concede to EVs.
In early June, California announced purchase credits of $1000 are now being offered for purchases of the Honda Civic NGV. The credits are limited to the first 1,600 vehicles or will end on April 22, 2015, whichever comes first. Single-occupancy NGVs will also have access to HOV lanes. The Civic NGV is manufactured in Indiana and gets an EPA combined 31 MPGe while saving an estimated 40% in fuel costs. California has about 150 CNG stations; the most of any state.
Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) just introduced its new fleet of 24 Honda Civic Natural Gas vehicles in late June with the help of a $240,000 grant from the Department of Environmental Protection. PGW indicates the new fleet will reduce the most harmful emissions by almost 90% and save money at the pump.
Hexagon Raufoss, a subsidiary of Hexagon Composites has been awarded a 7 year contract valued at $90 million to supply a yet-to-be-disclosed international car manufacturer with Type 4 fuel tanks for use on passenger cars. Type 4 tanks are all-composite cylinders weighing 70% less than Type 1 steel cylinders. Though more expensive than metal tanks, they provide a better value over the life of the car due to the lower fuel consumption afforded by the lighter weight. There are a couple of drawbacks though. The tanks require slower refueling and are not gas impermeable (but are deemed within acceptable limits). Initial deliveries are to begin in early 2017.
Natural gas vehicles are already quite popular in other parts of the world including countries such as Pakistan and Iran. They’re rapidly gaining popularity in Germany as well. However, the US has been slow to jump on the NGV bandwagon. Volkswagon, second only to Fiat in selling NGVs to Europe, is looking to break into the US market with their variety of CNG-fueled passenger cars but has held off until they feel that there are a sufficient number of fueling stations. It remains to be seen whether they will ever gain the traction EVs seem to be enjoying.