Natural Gas for Cars and Trucks

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2013 Dodge Dart.

As I write this, the price of a barrel of crude oil is falling like crazy. So too is the price of gasoline, though wouldn’t you know it, not at the same pace just yet. Nevertheless, expensive gasoline is almost assuredly in our future.

We hear a lot about alternative fuels these days ? mainly electricity – as a way to power our cars and keep us from using quite as much petroleum. So far electric drive, in both hybrid form as well as from batteries that are recharged externally, is primarily on the public’s radar.

But another alternative fuel is gaining traction these days as well: compressed natural gas, or CNG. Natural gas is plentiful, domestically sourced, and burns very clean. It’s available in a surprising number of locations, and more auto manufacturers are looking into offering vehicles that can run on it.

One of the best things about applying CNG to vehicles is that they essentially remain unchanged in how they function. They still use an internal combustion engine, but the plumbing is altered to use pressurized natural gas. To drive one is to see no discernible difference in the operating experience.

The huge advantage of CNG is that it burns very cleanly. So much so that the Honda Civic Natural Gas, the only production CNG car you can buy right off the showroom floor, is eligible for a special zero-emissions carpool lane sticker. Being able to drive solo in the HOV lane can obviously be a big time saver.

Conversion of the Honda’s fuel and engine control systems isn’t inexpensive, so the Civic Natural Gas is essentially a base model car for the price of a fully-loaded one when sticker prices are compared. With the navigation system, you’re looking at a $28,000 car, though that sat-nav unit is programmed to help you find a CNG refueling station.

Clean Energy is a company that operates those stations, and is adding new ones at a fairly rapid pace. The last time I drove a CNG Honda in 2006, there were about 60 natural gas refueling locations inSouthern California. Today there are over 100, and Clean Energy is working on adding more in the coming years.

I recently visited their CNG facility inGlendale, adjacent to the train station in an industrial section of town. (So far, most are “off the beaten path” so to speak, but Clean Energy wants to put more of them in high-traffic locations for visibility to the general public.) The price of an equivalent “gallon” of compressed natural gas was $2.25.

Refueling is easy and straightforward, with users of the self-serve pumps watching a short instructional video before being granted a PIN to dispense the CNG. At the station, a number of commercial vehicles stopped in for refueling while I was there, including sanitation trucks and taxis.

I added some CNG to a new Ford Super Duty pickup truck, now offered by Ford and authorized conversion companies. The particular truck I was driving was a bi-fuel conversion, which means you can still run on gasoline if you can’t find CNG. The downside there is that the CNG tanks don’t replace the gasoline tank on the truck, so they take up part of the space in the bed.

The conversion, done by a company calledWestport, isn’t cheap. It adds $9700 to the price of the F250 itself, which starts at over $30,000. Obviously you’d have to be committed to a long ownership to make the fuel system pay off financially.

But there are other incentives to use CNG, among them a reduction in carbon emissions due to the clean burning nature of natural gas. Since the fuel is domestic, the uncertainties of the price of crude oil won’t be a problem for users of CNG vehicles.

Ford is going full-guns when it comes to commercial vehicles adapted for natural gas, as the E-Series van and even the small Transit Connect are also available with the conversion. And according to the folks at Clean Energy, nearly every auto maker is looking into the fuel for their production cars.

CNG isn’t perfect, but as an alternative fuel it has tons of advantages. And don’t be surprised if you see new stations popping up here and there, as more vehicle buyers opt to go with natural gas.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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