Posted by: David Welch on September 24, 2008
When it comes to fuel efficient technologies, the only play that may get a bigger snub from Americans than diesel is natural gas. Toyota may jump in and try to change that when the Japanese hybrid king shows a natural gas-fueled Camry sedan at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. No word yet on whether Toyota plans to put the car into production, but the company is talking bullish on compressed natural gas.
And why not? Right now, CNG sells for the equivalent of about $2 a gallon, though prices fluctuate and vary by region. It’s clean and America has plenty of beneath our own soil. Ask residents of Fort Worth (Tex.) who are getting checks in their mail boxes as natural gas producers pump gas the Barnett Shale, a relatively recently-exploited natural gas field that sits under the city and for 5,000 miles around. In some cases, local residents are selling the natural gas rights under their homes for tens of thousands of dollars.
But despite its advantages over oil (specifically lower cost and greater availability in the U.S.) CNG has remained even more obscure on America’s highways than diesel. Honda has sold its CNG-powered Civic GX for years now. Not only does the car get little fanfare, Honda only sells about 2,000 a year. There are a few problems. The Civic GX’s natural gas hardware makes it the most expensive Civic at around $25,000. The other problem is that, aside from refueling at home, there aren’t many CNG stations around for GX drivers to use. Owners can buy an adapter to fill up at home, but it’s $4,000 to buy one. Even if a GX owner buys one, they have same problem that electric-car owners suffer. Fill up at home and don’t run out of fuel while trying to find a pump. Consumer Reports tested one earlier this year and got at most 200 miles on a fill up.
There are a couple of other big hitches for natural gas. Storing gas on board a car is more expensive than storing a liquid, such as diesel or gasoline. So the cost of the cars would rise. But so, too, may the cost of fuel. The world may have more natural gas reserves than oil, but those oil reserves still hold more energy, says Dr. Peter Wells, director of U.K.-based Neftex Petroleum Consultants Ltd. So that will still be the premium choice for cars, he says. Plus, if natural gas took off as a transportation fuel, its price would rise closer to gasoline prices. There’s just no free lunch here.