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This and That’s - Natural Gas

Column by Victoria Lee Hall

In early 1890’s, President Harry Truman’s father, while drilling a water well, struck natural gas. He used it to heat his own house and the house of his neighbor. While the exact mechanism he used to heat the two houses is not known, it is known shortly before (in 1885), the Bunsen Burner was invented, leading to other inventions to heat houses. And, although that seems a long time ago, the very first known natural gas well was drilled by the Chinese in 211 B.C. Later, the Chinese adapted bamboo pipelines to transport natural gas to provide fuel for boiling water, heating, and the first known instances of lighting.

To me, that is pretty impressive. One of the first U.S. pipelines was constructed in 1891. 120 miles long, it carried natural gas from wells in central Indiana to the city of Chicago. However, this early pipeline was very rudimentary, and did not transport natural gas efficiently. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that any significant effort was put into building a pipeline infrastructure. And, after World War II, welding techniques, pipe rolling, and metallurgical advances allowed for the construction of reliable pipelines. This led to a post-war pipeline construction boom lasting well into the 60’s, creating thousands of miles of pipeline in America.

But while heating your house and your water with natural gas is common place, fueling your vehicle is not. As far back as the 1930s, natural gas and manufactured gas were used in motor vehicles, though crude oil expansion after World War II drove its use down but natural gas vehicles never disappeared from the roads of America.

Natural gas-powered vehicles (NGV) are functionally similar to a standard gasoline engine. For this reason, after-market conversions can be performed on standard engines, allowing for vehicles to run either solely on natural gas or as a bi-fuel vehicle, running on both natural gas and petroleum. Most NGV’s use space-saving compressed natural gas (CNG) which is stored in fiberglass-protected, composite-metal storage tanks that have evolved over the years into smaller, lighter-weight—and safer—models, both for original model CNGVs and after-market conversions.

In the late 1980s, the United States government was still only evaluating natural gas as a viable alternative fuel. Yet the same concerns about energy dependence that plague the government today were deeply troubling throughout the past decades as more than half of the oil used domestically is now being imported.

Even in 1993, on the heels of the Gulf War, the revised Clean Air Act of 1990 and the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which could have put millions of natural gas-powered vehicles (or other alternative fuel vehicles) on the roads, U.S. automakers stalled over legitimate concerns over profitability and consumer interest. One provision of the Clean Air Act that has pushed the move to cleaner fuels includes the fuel pilot car program for California that has caused the gradual phase in of increasingly tighter emissions standards—standards which have forced American automakers to keep pace with automakers from around the world in fuel and emissions standards. California still leads the nation in emissions standards and the availability of cleaner vehicles. Meanwhile, the Energy Policy Act pushed for governmental fleet vehicle mandates that have driven a dramatic increase in the number of cleaner or alternative-fuel cars used by city, state, and federal agencies.

Today, over nine million NGVs are in use throughout the world, with over 100,000 in use in the United States that fill up at over 1,000 natural gas fueling stations but there are more than 140 million other-than-natural-gas vehicles registered in the U.S. Though in only a fraction of the total vehicles on the road, natural gas is used in everything from passenger cars to heavy-duty trucks, forklifts, commercial fleets, taxies, and buses. Since the year 2000, the total number of NGVs in the U.S. has remained fairly constant: however, worldwide, the number has grown from approximately 1,300,000 to 9,600,000 or 638% in eight years (2000-2007.)

What is it about NGVs that we, in the U. S. A., supposedly the most forward thinking country in the world, do not understand??? Honda and Daimler continue to design and engineer NGVs, perhaps most notably Honda’s Civic GX sedan (in production since 1998.) As an energy source, natural gas is cheaper than oil, and when burned it produces only about half the carbon dioxide that comes from burning coal. As long as natural gas reserves in the United States were believed to be nearing depletion, the fuel did not get much attention, but with the upward revision of estimated reserves, that has changed. “Natural gas is the fuel that can change everything for our nation,” says Robert Hefner, who lays out his case in a new book The Grand Energy Transition: The Rise of Energy Gases, Sustainable Life and Growth, and the Next Great Economic Expansion. Hefner argues that a big boost in the use of natural gas would dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Much of the nation’s electrical power now generated by burning coal could instead come from natural gas, and a switch to natural gas-powered automobiles would produce dramatic results.

Moreover, since natural gas has a higher ignition range and smaller range of flammability, it is considered generally safer than gasoline. Perhaps most importantly, “natural gas is not toxic or corrosive and will not contaminate ground water”.

There has been much talk about the future of alternative fuel vehicles, particularly in the United States, whose modern energy crisis has sparked renewed interest in the pursuit of new technologies for energy independence. Natural gas may play a significant role in America’s energy future. Approximately 85 percent of the natural gas used in the U.S. is produced domestically, while most of the rest is primarily from Canada. The Natural Gas Supply Association says there is at least a 60-year reserve available. Natural gas presents a compelling continuum towards sustainable energy systems in American by bridging the gap between existing technology and future technology, and by helping people develop the tools for working with the technology. Natural gas technology is establishing new infrastructures for fueling, including home refueling, and advocates are developing campaigns to encourage broader acceptance of new technologies and for training people to prepare for them.

Phil Unit in garage

”Phill”: courtesy of cngnow.com

Louisiana has passed laws which would facilitate the purchase of CNG vehicles in the form of tax credits. There is also a tax credit for the purchase of the Phill system, the home garage “slow fill” station for your new CNG vehicle. With Phill, there is no more waiting in lines at the pump. No more standing in the cold or rain while gasoline fills your tank. Just drive into your garage, put the nozzle in your tank, and the next morning, hang up the nozzle and drive away. Best of all, no more high prices for petroleum based fuel.

Honda CNG gas door and cap
The Honda Civic CNG gas door and cap picture: courtesy of Honda.com
The Honda Civic GX sedan statistics (courtesy of Honda.com)

Advanced Technology Partial-Zero-Emission Vehicle (AT-PZEV)[3] Fueled by Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) for nearly zero emissions HOV lane access in many states 113-hp, 1.8-Liter, 16-Valve, SOHC i-VTEC® 4-cylinder engine MPG (City/Highway/Combined) 24 / 36 / 28. Fuel capacity 7.8 GGE (gasoline gallon equivalent.) Natural gas is sold in GGEs or gasoline gallon equivalents. A GGE has the same energy content (124,800 BTU’s) as a gallon of gasoline.

Honda Civic CNG vehicle
The Honda Civic CNG: picture and statistics courtesy of Honda.com

Its range is approximately 170 miles (per Honda.com - actual driving range will vary, depending on driving habits, fill pressure, “fast fill” effects and how you maintain your vehicle.) I have talked with a man who gets approximately 200 miles with his Honda Civic CNG. By the way, the environmental friendly vehicle market will be becoming a bit more competitive soon. Just down the road in Monroe, Louisiana, the V-Vehicle Company will build fuel efficient vehicles in a new manufacturing plant. (See our article titled New American Car Company Will Make History in Louisiana 06/17/2009)

But, back to the Honda CNG, I have property in Shreveport and Houston and good friends in Dallas so I consider the triangle between these three cities, my most traveled corridors. The CNG is manufactured with three tanks. I could add a fourth tank as there are companies who specialize in converting gasoline burning vehicles to CNG burning vehicles and adding a tank is a rather minor task compared to a conversion from gasoline burning to the use of CNG. This would give me the fuel capacity to ensure I could drive the 240 miles between Houston and Shreveport (two CNG stations are “on the drawing board” for Shreveport/Bossier City in connection with the conversion of the first four City vehicles to CNG and are projected be open to the public as well, hopefully by next summer – more about this next time!)

The 180 miles between Shreveport and Dallas where there are several CNG stations accessible to the public, (20.) and the 220 miles back home to Houston where we have CNG stations or to a Phill home fuel fueling station of my own. It would be about $35 to fill the CNG’s tanks for my, let’s say, 700 mile triangular journey or nearly 20 gallons(using the July 2009 $1.73 per gasoline gallon equivalent price.) That is using the Honda Civic CNG’s gasoline gallon equivalent miles per gallon: an impressive (City/Highway/Combined) 24 / 36 / 28. Since most of those 700 miles are highway miles, the 36mph was used for the calculation. With my present fuel efficient Saturn which, for comparative purposes, we will use the same 36 mph and the same 20 gallons and using the average price for gasoline in July 2009 of $2.64 (nearly a dollar more per gallon than CNG!), I would pay a total of $53. While an approximate $18 savings may not sound impressive, that equates to a very impressive 34% cost savings in fuel by driving a CNG vehicle plus I would be doing my part to save the environment! Typical dedicated NGVs can reduce exhaust emissions of: Carbon monoxide (CO) by 70 percent Non-methane organic gas (NMOG) by 87 percent Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) by 87 percent Carbon dioxide (CO2) by almost 20 percent below those of gasoline vehicles).

So, this winter, while you are snug and warm in your natural gas heated house, think about buying a CNG vehicle and using environment friendly and pocketbook friendly natural gas in your next vehicle. PS: You might also think about spending some time with the books or websites listed in my references. For me, it was eye-opening reading. Happy Environmentally Friendly Holidays! Victoria Hall References: 1. McCullough, David. Truman 1992, David, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. New York, New York

naturalgas.org/overview/history.asp(accessed December 1, 2009)

Speight, James G. 2007. Natural Gas: A Basic Handbook. Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing Co., Natural Gas and Transportation, The History of Natural Gas Vehicles, randomhistory.com/2008/09/08_ngv.html September 8, 2008, (accessed December 1, 2009)

Ingersoll, John G. 1996. Natural Gas Vehicles, Lilburn, GA: Fairmont Press, Inc., from Natural Gas and Transportation, The history of Natural Gas Vehicles, randomhistory.com/2008/09/08_ngv.html September 8, 2008, (accessed December 1, 2009)

NGVAmerica.org, (accessed December 1, 2009)

Darley, Julian. 2005, High Noon for Natural Gas: The New Energy Crisis. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company. Natural Gas and Transportation, The History of Natural Gas Vehicles, www.randomhistory.com/2008/09/08_ngv.html, (accessed December 1, 2009)

Cannon, James S. 1993. Paving the Way to Natural Gas Vehicles. New York, NY: Inform, Inc., Natural Gas and Transportation, The History of Natural Gas Vehicles, randomhistory.com/2008/09/08_ngv.html, accessed December 1, 2009

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passenger_vehicles_in_the_United_States#Total_number_of_vehicles, 2007 statistics were latest posted, accessed December 4, 2009

iangv.org/tools-resources/statistics, 2009, (accessed December 4, 2009)

Woodyard, Chris. Natural-gas powered cars: Who even knows they exist? USA Today. May 9, 2007. Accessed: August 15, 2008, Natural Gas and Transportation, The History of Natural Gas Vehicles, randomhistory.com/2008/09/08_ngv.html September 8, 2008, (accessed December 1, 2009)

Gjelten, Tom September 22, 2009, Rediscovering Natural Gas by Hitting Rock Bottom, NPR.org, (accessed December 1, 2009)

Hefner, Robert A III. September, 2009, The Grand Energy Transition: The Rise of Energy Gases, Sustainable Life and Growth, and the Next Great Economic Expansion, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

randomhistory.com/2008/09/08_ngv, (accessed December 1, 2009.)

ngsa.org/facts_studies/gas_facts_studies.asp, accessed December 1, 2009

Louisiana Natural Gas Laws and Incentives, www.afdc.energy.gov/afdc/progs/ind_state_laws.php/LA/NG/print, accessed December 6, 2009

www.cngnow.com/EN-US/Vehicles/Pages/RefuelatHome.aspx (accessed December 6, 2009)

Honda.com, accessed December 4, 2009

New American Car Company Will Make History in Louisiana 6/17/2009, Haynesville Shale Landowners.org, accessed December 4, 2009

Bossier City receives $400k for natural gas stations, (September 21, 2009), cngnow.com/EN-US/NewsAndEvents/Pages/Bossier-City-receives-$400k-for-natural-gas-stations.aspx, (accessed December 4, 2009)

Westport.com, (accessed December 4, 2009); associatedcontent.com (for gasoline price 7/09), (accessed December 4, 2009)