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(file | The Associated Press) The falling price of natural gas has been a boost to homes and businesses that use the fuel for heat and appliances, and for manufacturers that use it to power their factories and make chemicals, plastics and other materials.
Fueling plans may finally spur natural-gas vehicle growth
Energy » Effort would vastly increase number of stations.
First Published Dec 31 2011 01:01 am • Last Updated Dec 31 2011 04:32 pm

The United States has record supplies of natural gas and plenty of reasons to promote natural-gas powered cars, but so far consumers, manufacturers and fuel suppliers haven’t shown much interest.

Now, a major natural gas developer plans to vastly increase the number of truck stops that offer liquid natural gas, which could help boost its use in the vehicles that burn the most fuel, while promoting its availability to a wider market.

At a glance

Compressed natural gas in Utah

For decades, Questar Corp. has promoted the use of compressed natural gas for passenger vehicles as an abundant and clean-burning alternative to gasoline.

The result is that Utah has one of the best networks of CNG refueling stations in the country.

There are 33 CNG stations in Utah, with the newest recently opened in Kaysville. Weber State University will follow suit next month.

Most stations are owned by Questar Gas and are at retail gasoline outlets throughout the state. The state of Utah owns five stations that are open to the public, and there also are a couple of privately owned stations.

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Lots of natural gas is available, if U.S. drivers decide to use it. In just a few years, domestic natural gas supplies have increased by trillions of cubic feet through shale finds, boosting the supply to the point where plans are in place to export part of the overflow.

The growth of natural gas vehicles in the United States so far has been dominated by fleets of buses, taxis, and garbage haulers. Only one natural gas car is commercially produced in the country, the Honda Civic GX, recently renamed the NG. It has sold a grand total of about 13,000 in 13 years of production.

For reasons of tank space, liquid natural gas is used by commercial trucks, while compressed natural gas is the fuel of choice for cars.

The reasons for the lackluster sales of natural gas cars are many. The fuel is available only at a relatively small number of public stations, tethering the vehicles within a certain distance of a fuel source. And even though the pump price of natural gas can run $1 to $2 less per gallon equivalent than gasoline, natural gas vehicles generally carry a higher sticker price.

The focus for the natural gas vehicle industry in the United States has been the fuel-guzzlers, commercial vehicles, especially tractor-trailer rigs.

Rich Kolodziej, president of the trade association NGV America, says that makes sense in terms of overall fuel usage. He said a driver who puts 12,000 miles a year on a car at 25 miles to the gallon will use about 500 gallons of gasoline annually. But a diesel-driven 18-wheeler can easily go 120,000 miles a year. At six miles per gallon, that comes to 20,000 gallons.

"If you’re trying to reduce foreign imports of oil, you’re trying to reduce greenhouse gases and emissions in urban areas, where do you put your effort? You put it on the big vehicles," Kolodziej said.

According to the international trade association NGV Global, there are 12.7 million natural gas vehicles in the world, including 6.8 million in the Asia-Pacific rim, 4.2 million in Latin America, 1.4 million in Europe and 122,000 in Africa.

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The U.S. has just 112,000 of them — less than 1 percent of the global total, and less than 1/10 of 1 percent of the 253.7 million vehicles in the U.S.

Most of them are in fleets.

"The big reason that they work well for fleets and not the average person on the street is that most fleet vehicles are used for relatively short trips," said John O’Dell, senior editor of Edmunds.com, which follows the vehicle industry. "They go back to the barn in the evening where they have a refueling station that can handle them."

Kolodziej said that there are about 180,000 gasoline stations — and only about 1,000 locations to fill up with natural gas.

But that may be changing.

The T. Boone Pickens-backed Clean Energy FuelsCorp. is embarking on a major expansion of natural gas fueling and plans to add liquefied natural gas pumps at 150 truck stops nationwide over the next 24 to 36 months.

"We’ve mapped out a strategy to cover every major interstate in the domestic United States," said Clean Energy Fuels chief marketing officer James Harger.

Clean Energy provides fueling services for more than 500 fleets consisting of about 22,000 vehicles, such as transit buses, taxis, shuttle buses, school buses, municipal cars and garbage trucks, Harger said.

Still, Clean Energy has its eyes firmly focused on the long-haul trucking industry with its truck stop expansion plan.

Harger and other natural gas proponents are putting stock in pending congressional legislation that would provide tax credits to cover 80 percent of the cost difference between a liquid natural gas tractor-trailer and the diesel variety. Harger said the five-year bill probably would cost about $1 billion a year. The U.S. spends over $1 billion a day on foreign oil.

"This will help jump-start this industry," he said.

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