How to Fill Up for $1.50 a Gallon (or Less!)
This week, 130,000 drivers in America will gas up their vehicles for about $1.50 a gallon. Some may pay as little as a buck.
The last time gasoline was that cheap, Bill Clinton was president.
And many will never leave their driveways to do it.
No, they don’t have oil wells in their backyards, or gasoline pumps in their garages.
But they do have a cheap, reliable source of fuel.
The Benefits of Natural Gas Vehicles
The fuel isn’t gasoline. It’s compressed natural gas (CNG), and the costs savings can be huge.
At commercial filling stations, the amount of natural gas equivalent to a gallon of gasoline costs just $2-$2.50.
And homeowners who install home filling stations that tap into the gas already coming into their homes can see that cost drop to $1-$1.50.
That’s why a number of municipal transportation systems and companies are experimenting with buses and trucks that run on natural gas. Los Angeles, for instance, converted 80% of its trash trucks to run on natural gas and saw its fuel costs plummet by $6 million/year. Other municipalities, as well as companies such as Federal Express, have seen similar savings.
But that’s not the only benefit. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 40% of the oil used in America is imported, while 80-90% of all natural gas in the U.S. is domestically produced, making the price of natural gas relatively stable.
Two final pluses: engines that run on natural gas may require less maintenance than gasoline or diesel and your engine oil will stay cleaner when burning natural gas, which means fewer oil changes. And in many states, vehicles powered by natural gas are eligible to use High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, regardless of how many people are in the vehicle.
As a source of fuel, natural gas is also much cleaner and safer than gasoline.
According to the Department of Energy (DOE), vehicles burning natural gas emit 20-45% fewer smog-producing pollutants, and 5-9% less greenhouse gases. The drilling, processing and transporting of natural gas is also significantly less environmentally harmful than drilling, refining and transporting crude oil, whether the crude oil is refined into gasoline or diesel fuel.
In an accident, natural gas is safer, too. Unlike gasoline, natural gas is lighter than air and will dissipate if a vehicle’s natural gas tank is ruptured. In addition, because natural gas’ flash point is so much higher than gasoline’s (1,100 degrees vs. 250 degrees), the chances of a fire or explosion are considerably less.
In fact, just to prove the point, “O”Ring CNG Fuel Systems, a fuel station operator, fired armor piercing ammunition from an AR-15 military assault rifle at a full automotive compressed natural gas tank. The gas harmlessly hissed out of the safety valve.
Meanwhile, in an experiment using a full stick of dynamite – the equivalent of a vehicle hitting a brick wall at 89 miles per hour – the gas did the same thing, harmlessly hissing out of the safety valve.
The tank itself was dented, but remained intact.
But doesn’t mean these vehicles don’t come with their share of drawbacks.
Natural Gas Vehicles: A Good News, Bad New Story
Natural gas vehicles may cost less to run, but they cost more to purchase.
The Honda Civic, which is the only CNG-powered car for sale in the U.S., carries a $5,000+ premium for its CNG version. CNG trucks and vans from Ford, Chevrolet and General Motors are also significantly more expensive than their gasoline and diesel counterparts. Kits are available to retrofit many other vehicles to run on CNG; according to the DOE, converting a vehicle to run on CNG costs $2,000-$4,000, or more depending upon the vehicle.
Filling up at home also requires a home fueling station connected to an existing gas line. Right now that station adds $2,000-$5,000 to the tab, though the price is expected to drop below $1,000. It also takes several hours (typically overnight) to refill an empty tank. Commercial fuel stations, however, can fill a vehicle’s tank in five minutes.
The second drawback is range.
Natural gas contains less energy: CNG is only 25% as dense as gasoline when measuring the amount of energy per unit. So even with bigger tanks, vehicles powered by natural gas have to stop a lot more often to refuel.
In tests, the Civic traveled 130-200 miles on a full tank, about half the distance a gasoline powered Civic can travel.
That brings us to the biggest problem facing CNG owners: an infrastructure still in its early stages.
Government and industry numbers vary, but the consensus is that there are approximately 1,000 natural gas refueling stations in the country, with about half owned by municipalities or fleet companies and half open to the public.
By contrast, the U.S. government estimates that there are over 160,000 retail service stations in America. Owners of gasoline powered vehicles don’t have to plot out their fuel stops before jumping in the car for a trip. CNG owners do.
And drivers of natural gas vehicles can’t drive past several stations looking for the best price. Chances are there won’t be another CNG station for many miles.
To get around that limitation, some vehicles are available in bi-fuel models, with a large CNG tank and a smaller gasoline tank. A driver can manually switch from one fuel to the other, providing a gasoline alternative when CNG is unavailable.
The Future of Natural Gas Vehicles
With 15.2 million natural gas-powered vehicles in the world, and only 130,000 or so in the U.S., America lags behind much of the world. According to the Wall Street Journal, the leading countries for NGV (natural gas vehicles) are Iran with 3.5 million, Pakistan with 2.8 million, Argentina with 2.3 million, Brazil with 1.8 million, and China with 1.6 million.
But things are changing. There’s now no question that the number of natural gas vehicles in the U.S. will grow rapidly from here.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Gas Vehicles for America, today, 40 percent of new garbage trucks and 25 percent of new buses in the U.S. can run on natural gas. And almost 50 percent of the trash trucks purchased in 2012 were powered by natural gas.
What’s more, the DOE is funding $30 million in research to increase the number of NGVs on American roads. And as more natural gas vehicles hit U.S. roads, more fueling stations will naturally follow. Existing gasoline stations will simply add natural gas pumps.
Remember that diesel fuel, for example, was once mostly confined to truck stops and municipal fleet depots. Today, half of all service stations sell diesel fuel, according to automotive website Edmunds.com.
And that’s with only 3% of all registered passenger vehicles in the U.S. having a diesel engine.
So how can investors take advantage of the coming boom in NGVs?…
We’ll cover that piece of the puzzle in a future issue. So stay tuned.