For the first time in U.S. history, it is possible to imagine running our car fleet on an alternative fuel, and I don't mean electricity as the only option. Last week, my ride was the Honda Civic Natural Gas, the 2012 rework of what was known as the Civic GX — then and now, the only CNG car you can buy on the open market.
It was easy to understand the auto industry's reluctance to jump into this untried transportation fuel, because although there are something like 112,000 natural gas vehicles on the road in the U.S. (13 million worldwide), they're almost all fleet vehicles like buses and trucks, and this country lacks a public fueling infrastructure for natural gas. We have 500 natural gas stations anybody can use, compared to something like 160,000 gasoline stations.
I'd like to say that's changing, but it isn't. There's still no great move afoot to get American motorists driving natural gas cars. All the action is in the truck fleets, and a company called Clean Energy is building a network of fleet-ready refueling pumps at Pilot Travel Centers, such as the location on I-95 in Milford. Soon truckers with a smart card will be able to drive coast-to-coast on natural gas, and a surprising number of long-haul truckers are making that change — because CNG and LNG are $1.50 less per gallon equivalent. The additional price premium to buy the natural gas truck — over and above the diesel version — would pay back in a year.
Drivers of the Civic Natural Gas could use a friend in the fleet business, and it happens I have one at the Fairfield Public Works Garage, which fuels 15 town-owned Civics and school buses. Fairfield has been visionary in using natural gas as a transportation fuel, and it's saving the town money every day. A fill-up involves connecting a hose and turning on the gas — it takes even less time than getting gasoline.
Natural gas is much cleaner than gasoline: On average, a natural gas car reduced carbon monoxide (CO) by 70 to 90 percent, nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 75 to 95 percent and carbon dioxide (CO2) by 20 to 30 percent.
The Civic GX was sold with an optional home refueler called the Phill, but they're no longer connected. Today, a Phill is $4,000 but the industry is working on cheaper alternatives. Home refueling has strong parallels to electric car recharging, and is about as convenient. People with Phills tell me they're great.
The $27,655 Civic is rated at 27 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway. Natural gas has less energy content than gasoline, so range has been a problem. Fairfield's DPW tells me its older Civic range varies from 100 to 180 miles, but that's been improved on the 2012 car. I saw between 220 and 240 miles on a tank.
Take a look at the garbage trucks coming down your street, because there's a good chance that at least one of them is powered by natural gas. Between 20 and 30 percent of the new waste haulers are now natural gas-powered. The premium over gasoline-powered versions has fallen significantly, and the payback period with cheap natural gas makes it a no-brainer. Regional trucking is going to natural gas in a big way, and long-haul (the cornerstone of the T. Boone Pickens Plan) is the next frontier.
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