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Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) as an Alternative Fuel for Vehicles Fleets Makes Sense: Low Cost Creates Untapped Demand that U.S. Suppliers Can Fill Today (3 Parts)

August 9, 2010

Part 1 of a 3 Part Series  

When considering a direction in clean energy, five basic requirements must be satisfied in order to ensure a low-risk and a rapid return on investment. These criteria include:

  • Environmentally Clean or Cleaner
  • Domestic Resource Base
  • Commercially Available,
  • Positive and Immediate Impact on Domestic Economy (like JOBS), and,
  • Affordability.

While there is a vast array of technologies that claim to support these goals, few technologies can actually meet these requirements, today. Claims for commercially viable alternative energy solutions are in the distant future. For the most part, they are constrained by perception, economic, regulatory, technical, reliability and durability issues. Outside of government investments and incentives, in today’s risk-adverse world, the likelihood to secure the necessary funds to develop and commercialize a technically sound clean energy solution is a difficult and remote opportunity.

In terms of what renewable energy technologies make the most sense, it must be understood that in the U.S., electric power generation, transportation and industry are the big three contributors of greenhouse-gas emissions with each generating 2.4, 2.0 and 1.4 billion metric tons in 2007, respectfully. Of the total energy consumed in the U.S., 40% comes from petroleum products, 23% from coal and 22% from natural gas. Nuclear power (8%), biomass (3%), hydro-electric (3%) and geothermal, solar/PV and wind (1%) plays a minor but conceivable growing role. The Energy Information Administration sites use of natural gas in the U.S. economy includes industrial (35%), electric generation (29%), residential (20%), commercial (13%) and transportation (3%). Additionally, a comprehensive study released on July 4, 2008 by the American Clean Skies Foundation (ACSF) and Navigant Consulting, Inc. (NYSE:NCI) indicates the United States has 2,247 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas reserves, which is enough to last more than 100 years.

With about 250 million registered vehicles in the U.S., the transportation sector offers a tremendous opportunity to reap the benefits of renewable sources of energy. Diversification of America’s transportation fuel portfolio includes a short list consisting of all-electric, hybrid PHEV, bio-diesel (B100) and blends, ethanol, propane, and hydrogen. While these choices have some environmental and economic benefits for light duty-vehicles (up to 8,500 GVW), natural gas for vehicles is the logical energy choice due to its proven technology, commercial availability and compatibility with internal combustion engines. In combination with the existing base of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, this results in tremendous economic benefits for fleet operators that convert their vehicles to use natural gas. Additionally, electric and hybrid alternatives are not available or a good choice due to performance limitations for medium-duty (up to 14,000 GVW), medium-heavy-duty (up to 26,000 GVW) and heavy-duty vehicles (over 26,000 GVW). Finally, bio-diesel and blends may not meet the air quality standards mandated by the EPA.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Ivy permalink
    August 10, 2010 1:01 AM

    Barry,

    I can think of a couple more criteria that need to be considered.

    1) Long term sustainability
    (specifically meaning that it should not set us up for another
    peak oil or peak coal booby trap scenario)

    2) It should not negatively effect the price and availability of existing food supplies

    3) It should not under any circumstance result in the release of more atmospheric CO2 than otherwise might happen

    Of course I like natural gas in terms of it’s inherently lower carbon emissions when compared to the other two common carbon based alternatives (coal and oil) but something about a renewed dependence on natural gas has a robbing Peter to pay Paul feel to me. It makes me think going that way could put off our enviable carbon free energy future and we can’t afford anything that might delay us on our way to that required end result.

    Natural gas for transportation is a sure fire winner using the criteria you mentioned, but it seems to come up a little short on the first two criteria I mention for sure, I am sure there are many more points to consider.

    In the long term we are facing peak natural gas just as surely as we are facing Peak Oil (and Peak Coal too according to recent headlines.) So embracing yet another carbon source for transportation doesn’t seem to be an ideal solution. Likely part of the solution but not ideal.

    And there is this thing about natural gas and food? It has to do with the Haber–Bosch process…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haber_process

    I am not sure most people fully appreciate the significance of that process (the fertilizer that springs from it) and it’s absolute dependence on cheap natural gas to get the job done.

    Once one reads a bit about that process and it’s significance to modern agriculture, they generally take a go slow approach to this idea of placing major new demands on natural gas as a transportation fuel. Although in the long term we don’t want our agriculture to require the release of carbon at all.

    I am not saying it is a sure thing but I fear that this idea of greatly increasing natural gas use (for transportation) really could threaten our food supply.

    So you see even with shale gas and recent improved methods for extracting it I am still very wary of any process that touches our food supply like that.

    Still, I really do like what you write, always food for though there, and I find that you have usually thought these things through in more detail than a part timer energy guy like me might have so I will say right up front that I am still listening but I would really like to know what effect you think this natural gas for transportation (and yet another carbon source for the atmosphere) are likely to have before I can see myself getting behind a plan like that.

    Personally I like this idea for Texas transportation.

    http://www.tritrack.net/

    It is much better though out that a quick glance might make you think!

    The guy seems to have a good answer for every criticism you can throw at him.

    Thanks again for the post: Steve Ivy

    PS: Not to be a pest mind you,

    But I did need to verify that you were indeed not interested in hearing about that mass energy storage idea that my business partner and I have filed patent on?

    I assume you get many such offers in your position and I understand if you can’t possibly follow up on them all.

    I just wanted to be sure my previous letter to you had not just gotten lost in a pile of email?

  2. August 10, 2010 6:29 AM

    All excellent and valid points. Currently, it appears that no one renewable energy solution provides all the answers, i.e., cleaner, domestic resource base, commercially available, creates jobs and is affordable. Wind turbines and solar panels are being sourced from European or Asian countries, even batteries for EV’s may come offshore. When the issue is dissected, natural gas seems to come far ahead of all other. Long-term, it is agreed that natural gas is not the solution. However, at this point in time it’s better to take baby steps then achieve the grand mission, which is not happening in the U.S. Whether the term is appropriate of not, we are in a “War of Energy Resources.” The sooner we “END” our reliance on foreign oil and stop the bleeding export of U.S. dollars for fossil fuels, the better the U.S. will be. I wish I had a magic wand, but no one does. So let’s utilize what we have in the U.S., cut our losses, and use the money to finally develop viable energy solution(s).

    BarryOnEnergy

  3. August 11, 2010 7:58 AM

    Thanks guys for the mention. TriTrack can also run on compressed natural gas. The system includes a mechanism that swaps the energy storage unit at speed so changing the CNG tank is instant as the dual mode car comes down off the guideway. Swapping batteries or swapping CNG tanks allows for infinite range with a tiny storage tank or battery. This keeps the cost low both in weight and money. My suggestion for natural gas is to run all the heavy equipment on CNG and convert the four-passenger car to PV solar electric. This takes a transformation of the form of the car from rubber wheels to guideway steel wheels and the most important part is to have a Cd of .07 as the aerodynamic drag coefficient. This radical change in car fashion is what is required to make cars efficient enough to be PV solar powered by the sunshine that hits the right of way. Vehicle energy conservation is the key to oil independence.

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