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Natural Gas - The Next Big Fuel?

hpmctorquehpmctorque Posts: 4,201
edited July 2011 in General
From the latest issue of Automotive News...

"American automobiles have a limited diet, but gasoline's monopoly at the pump may be ending. The giant of U.S. automakers is turning to something cheaper and cleaner: natural gas.

General Motors Co. announced plans this week to develop its first natural gas-powered engine, overcoming its long aversion to alternative fuels and joining a host of smaller players working to put natural gas in car engines.

In Indianapolis, Marlon Kirby has built a new supercar that looks much like all the others -- sleek, curvy, low to the ground -- but which differs from its gasoline-guzzling counterparts in one major way: it runs on liquid natural gas.

After 21,000 man hours, the $1 million Maxximus LNG 2000 is ready for speed trials and Kirby expects it to top 200 miles per hour.

GM, the automobile powerhouse and Kirby, the niche mechanic, are at opposite ends of the same movement -- to make car engines that use the country's abundant, cheap supplies of natural gas.

The United States has more natural gas than it knows what to do with, up to 100 years of supply, experts say, thanks to a new drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing which releases huge reserves of natural gas trapped in shale rock.

Natural gas is used mainly in electricity generation and for industry, but with just 120,000 natural gas vehicles on the road and only 900 filling stations, transport remains a tiny fraction of total demand.

However, assuming production forecasts are correct, natural gas will likely remain cheap for years and could help cut U.S. reliance on oil. While crude prices soared above $110 a barrel this year due to unrest in the Middle East, U.S. natural gas prices, impervious to international influence, remained low as there was no shortage of natural gas at home.

Drivers who fill up with natural gas at the pump saved up to $2 per gallon when gasoline prices hit $4 a gallon.

Car makers, manufacturers and fleet owners are quietly scrambling to run their engines on the cleaner-burning fossil fuel which was formerly the preserve of trash trucks and city buses.

'With all the activity in shale gas, the natural gas price is decoupled from diesel. Natural gas is a lot more attractive given the situation in the market,' said Ian Scott, president of Westport Innovations Light-Duty Division.

Vancouver-based Westport, which develops technologies to convert engines to run on natural gas, is working with GM on the multimillion-dollar project to develop a natural gas vehicle.

GM and Westport will look at light-weight engines, as small as 0.5 liters, opening up the market to smaller consumer vehicles previously overlooked by engine manufacturers.

This would be only the second passenger vehicle in the United States made at the factory to run on natural gas, following Honda's Civic GX.

Westport CEO David Demers described this as the company's "breakout year" in a recent interview with Reuters. The company has sold 500 heavy-duty engine systems already this financial year, up from 25 the previous year.

Separately, Mack Trucks has seen a 50-100 percent rise in natural gas vehicle sales in recent years, mainly to refuse companies, said Curtis Dorwart, Mack Trucks' vocational marketing product manager.

"The big draw is the difference in the fuel price, especially with diesel above $4 a gallon," Dorwart said.

Interest in natural gas has waxed and waned over the years, generally in reverse proportion to the price of oil. What may be different now is the massive and long-term oversupply.

'Over the past five years, we have seen that when there is slump in oil prices a lot of people forget about transitioning to a domestic fuel,' said Carla York, CEO of Innovation Drive consultants in Reston, Va. Innovation Drive helps manage a Clean Cities program in Connecticut which involves grants from the Department of Energy to build natural gas infrastructure.

Mack Trucks was heavily involved in natural gas vehicles in the 1990s, with 400 or so on the road, but falling gasoline prices dented demand enough that they were discontinued.

In the 1990s, GM offered the Chevrolet Kodiak and GMC Top Kick that were retrofitted to run on natural gas, but these were discontinued during restructuring in the mid 2000s.

Even if oil prices retreat again, some in the industry say natural gas will remain attractive due to its long-term abundance and the potential for government support.

'The movement again toward natural gas is greater than in the late 1990s and this time it looks like it might have legs,' said Curtis Dorwart, Mack Trucks' vocational marketing product manager.

Richard Kolodziej, president of NGV America, a natural gas vehicle trade association, said natural gas displaced 360 million gallons of gasoline in 2010. He forecasts that could rise to 10 billion gallons in 15 years.

'The difference now is that there is confidence about the supply of natural gas,' Kolodziej said. 'The United States has a lot of natural gas.'

In Connecticut, the Clean Cities program covers the extra cost of a natural gas vehicle. Taxi firm Metro Taxi in West Haven has taken delivery of a fleet of converted Ford transit cars.

'The costs savings at the pump are incredible,' said Metro Taxi head Bill Scalzi, who has tested the vehicles. In West Haven, the difference is now about $1.50 per gallon, he said.

Much hinges on politics. The Natural Gas Act launched in the House of Representatives in April proposes incentives for purchasing and building natural gas vehicles, replacing a previous bill whose sweeteners for users of the fuel have recently expired.

The proposed incentives include a 50 cent per gallon fuel credit, a purchasing credit that covers up to 80 percent of the extra cost of a natural gas vehicle, and tax breaks for building fueling infrastructure. The bill has bipartisan support and some say it could pass this year.

Some of the most innovative work to get natural gas into car engines is happening not in Washington but in a gas-guzzling city in the American heartland, Indianapolis. Marlon Kirby -- a stocky, fast-talking mechanic -- began racing cars when he was six and working on hotrods when he was 10.

But, with the help of high-flying hedge fund manager Bruce McMahan, he's left gasoline behind. The two met when Kirby was doing some shifts driving a limousine in 2005. During a 20-minute ride, Kirby pitched his supercar plan. McMahan was interested; business cards were exchanged.

Six years and seven world speed records later, the two business partners have moved on to natural gas. They say the Maxximus LNG 2000 could beat world speed records.

'I looked at several different energy sources,' Kirby said. 'What could I use fuel-wise that we have a lot of, which is readily available and cleaner for the environment? It doesn't matter about your political views.' "

Your thougts?

Comments

  • gagricegagrice San DiegoPosts: 28,993
    I was set to convert my 1993 Chevy 3/4 ton to CNG when the market went bust. The stations selling CNG quit offering it here in San Diego. I would say converting NG to diesel would get more interest. CNG is a great fuel and very clean burning. The tanks, availability and cost are the biggest roadblocks that I can see. For anyone wanting to try one, they come up on surplus auction here in CA from time to time. Mostly Ford Crown Vics that run on CNG only. They are also given HOV white passes like the Civic GX. CNG conversions that run on both do not get the HOV pass.
  • steverstever Ex Yooper, just arrived in New MexicoPosts: 40,547
    Another blurb:

    "As of June 15, there were 889 compressed natural gas (CNG) stations and 44 liquefied natural gas (LNG) stations in the U.S., compared to about 2,600 propane stations, almost 2,400 E85 stations and 2,102 publicly accessible electric-vehicle charging stations, according to the U.S. Energy Department's Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center (AFDC). There are about 125,000 gasoline stations in the U.S. "[GM] always had the philosophy that engines are their core technology, and they don't like to farm out stuff, so for them to team up with Westport to bring out a GM-branded (CNG) engine isn't too much of a surprise," Hurst said in an interview. "The cost of the fuel is significantly lower, but people are just concerned about being able to find it, and there's just not the awareness of it amid the push towards electric drive."

    Westport And GM To Develop Natural Gas Engines (AutoObserver)

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  • robr2robr2 BostonPosts: 7,818
    I wonder if the key is offering at home refueling capability to those of us with natural gas?

    One question I have is if natural gas is so plentiful in the US, why do we import it? About 300 yards behind my office is an LNG port that processes gas from Trinidad. Why?
  • plektoplekto Posts: 3,738
    The U.S. still has decades-old contracts and agencies and so on that are still in effect from the Cold War. We import it because of idiotic mandates that say that we need to have enormous stockpiles and deplete foreign reserves if possible before really touching our own massive reserves.

    We pay $4 a gallon mostly because we're saving our own oil for a war that will never come. We also do this with many other items. It was a great idea in the 80s. Now, it's not. But it's impossibly hard to unravel all of the B.S. and pork from a thousand different bills and departments and agencies. And nobody seems to want to bother with it - it's easier to just ignore it for the next term.

    And then there is the fact that a lot of cities now mandate CNG for their public fleets. Not because it's cheaper or cleaner (it is) but because the law (now) says so. Which makes it a huge profit item for these companies.

    Still, if you ask ANY person who drives a CNG Civic, they love it. $2 a gallon is a great thing. And nobody cares if it's magic green goo or blue genie farts or whatever if it's cheap, you can put it in your tank in a few minutes, and your car runs on it. There's no reason we HAVE to use gasoline or diesel for our vehicles.
  • gagricegagrice San DiegoPosts: 28,993
    CNG is very very limited in availability and range. If you have a PHILL and can make it on your commute that is great. If you have to depend on stations in your area. I would advise reading the comments. For the few stations in my area, they seem to be broke or only partially able to fill your CNG tank much of the time. I don't think the UP is a good place to own a CNG vehicle. You can get some cheap gas, but have to drive to So Michigan or Green Bay Wis.

    http://www.cngprices.com/
  • Although CNG is great, cheap and so on, I think the Fracking process may hinder the rise of CNG.
    People are still concerned that the fracking process, if not done right, leads to water pollution as the chemicals form the process may leak into the natural water well that supplies cities with water. I'm not some pro petrol or diesel freak but just thought I should mention this. Fracking can be safe as long as companies don't cut corners, motivated solely by profits.

    You can find out more in this cool YouTube video which combines music, cartoons and science; aptly named Edutainment! ha ha!

    http://youtu.be/timfvNgr_Q4

    here's an info-graphic as well: http://bit.ly/qJCqi0
  • texasestexases Posts: 5,577
    You're correct, there is lots of fear of fracking...almost all of it unwarrented. There are just about 0 proven cases of these new wells fracturing into fresh water aquifers. Those 'water on fire' videos result from shallow gas (a few hundred to a thousand feet deep) migrating into an aquifer, typically from an old shallow gas well in the area. It is actually easy to 'fingerprint' the gas to determine its source. There have been thousands of these deep fractured wells in the North Texas area, with no known examples of aquifer contamination. This is an area with over 2 million people. And the move 'Gasland' is 99% BS.
  • steverstever Ex Yooper, just arrived in New MexicoPosts: 40,547
    What do you mean by new wells? Were the three private wells contaminated in PA before the fracking started? Seems kind of odd that Chesapeake would be footing the bill for temporary water tanks and filtration systems if the wells were already bad. (Pollution found in Pa. wells near site of blowout - York Dispatch).

    Be curious to see what the EPA test results say. Meanwhile Maryland is suing Chesapeake for spilling the fracking fluids.

    I think part of the problem is that people assume that the water and chemicals pumped a mile down to release the gas is going to stay down there, but it sounds like more than half comes back to the surface.

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  • texasestexases Posts: 5,577
    Companies are bending over backward in some cases to try to help. And yes, the article indicates that the wells were contaminated earlier. If something happened as a result of a blowout, that's not the fracking stage. I don't think that anyone that looks into fracking would think the frac fluid stays underground. Dealing with that fluid when it's produced back requires care. The major issues in North Texas have been temporarty noise and air pollution during the drilling phase, along with heavy truck traffic at that time.

    This technology has resulted in gas prices dropping, they're now about 1/2 of what they would be without all the new gas production. This is saving us billions of dollars a year. Like every human activity there are some risks. But the fears are many times greater than the reality.
  • steverstever Ex Yooper, just arrived in New MexicoPosts: 40,547
    I don't think that anyone that looks into fracking would think the frac fluid stays underground.

    Except, ahem, yours truly. :blush:

    I know that drilling mud comes back up but I figured the water replaced the gas volume in the rock and stayed there.

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  • texasestexases Posts: 5,577
    Sorry...what happens it that a large fraction comes back up as the well is brought on production. As the well 'cleans up' the frac fluid production pretty well stops. A closed system of piping and separators captures the frac fluid. Done correctly, no spills occur.
  • steverstever Ex Yooper, just arrived in New MexicoPosts: 40,547
    And nothing ever gets spilled in the bay or the Gulf or on the Slope or in the Clinch River. ;)

    With all the solid waste generated in the US, maybe the next big fuel should be biogas from the landfills.

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  • texasestexases Posts: 5,577
    edited July 2011
    If you wish to live with no risk, why do you drive a car?

    Seriously, more gas is spilled by folks filling up in gas stations that the small percent of diesel in the largely-water-based frac fluid. The scaremongers have created a crises where the incidents are small and resolved.
  • steverstever Ex Yooper, just arrived in New MexicoPosts: 40,547
    edited July 2011
    I try to mitigate my risk as much as possible. Big corp is focused on the quarterly profit and loss statement and lets stuff like pipeline inspections slide. Frackers deserve close attention and meaningful regulation too.

    Got an EPA link for the spillage btw? All I see are blog references to "American homeowners spill 17 million gallons of gasoline annually" but nothing at the EPA site to verify that claim. Or is this from the Railroad Commission of Texas? Sounds like one Snopes needs to look at - NY is saying it too. (link). Probably buried in some reg somewhere.

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  • texasestexases Posts: 5,577
    Fracking is already heavily regulated, with more on the way. My point is to do meaningful regulation, but not irrational banning of the process based on biased claims like those in 'Gasland'. Folks are being encouraged to think that America's fresh water is somehow in mortal danger. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have worked on fracture designs, and exending fractures vertically is difficult, and to have them extend over a mile from the shale reservoirs into the shallow aquifers is near-impossible. More to the point, doing so would be a HUGE waste of money for the developer. And you can count on them not to waste huge amounts of money.
  • steverstever Ex Yooper, just arrived in New MexicoPosts: 40,547
    edited July 2011
    Nice to have someone in the biz posting here. Sometimes I think I'm paying about as much for a gallon of water as gas (~$80 a month currently for two of us, including sewer and paying off water bonds), and it does give me pause to think how much is used industrially for everything oil related, not to mention how much it takes to manufacturer solar panels.

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  • gagricegagrice San DiegoPosts: 28,993
    I just wish we had natural gas out our way. The service ends about a mile from here. Propane on average is about 50% higher.

    In CA the biggest water users are the Mega Ag industry. It takes a lot of water to make the desert bloom. When I thought about a place out in the desert I was surprised to find I could get water to raise crops for 1/30th of what we are paying in San Diego for household water. Also a big user of Natural gas is the production of Hydrogen which is mostly used for fertilizer. So if we produce more of our electricity with NG. I don't see how we can also power our cars with it. If we have that big of an abundance, we need to get it to folks in the NE that are still heating with fuel oil (diesel). All of which is without any pollution control as far as I can tell.
  • fezofezo Posts: 9,348
    Done correctly, no spills occur.

    Well, sure. That applies to deep ocean drilling, nuclear plants, etc. The problem is largely when someone decides to cut corners.

    I agree that the trick is regulation based on the science.

    Gary - Do I hear you about propane! When our house was built there was no gas line here. We knew it was coming so put up with propane in the interim. Expensive, takes forever to heat a pot of water.....
  • texasestexases Posts: 5,577
    Well, it was my comment on spills. And we're talking water with some chemical additives, not radioactive waste. Not to minimize the problem, but spills of this type are not difficult to clean up and would not lead to permanent damage. The problem is keeping the issues and risks in perspective. A minor, easily-remediated spill on one of a thousand frac jobs is not anything like the other problems you mention.
  • steverstever Ex Yooper, just arrived in New MexicoPosts: 40,547
    I thought Radiation in fracking fluid is a new concern (post-gazette.com).

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  • texasestexases Posts: 5,577
    This is called NORM (naturally occurring radioactive materials). Sounds like the regulators are on top of it, as they should be. Another good example of where we need to watch, measure, and regulate, but not over-react. This is nothing like the radioactive leak issues associated with the Japanese power plants, for example.
  • robr2robr2 BostonPosts: 7,818
    If we have that big of an abundance, we need to get it to folks in the NE that are still heating with fuel oil (diesel). All of which is without any pollution control as far as I can tell.

    Actually, natural gas heat is pretty common in the northeast in areas where there is a dense population. Rural areas don't have it because of the cost of running a line to every house. I have gas heat.

    As for oil not being clean, the oil heat trade group claims that oil heat is so clean it doesn't require any federal regualtions. I take that with a grain of salt.

    http://www.oilheatamerica.com/index.mv?screen=burners
  • steverstever Ex Yooper, just arrived in New MexicoPosts: 40,547
    edited July 2011
    Well, yeah, and there's arsenic in rocks too. It's not a problem until the miners dig up the gold or silver or whatever and break down the ore. Then the arsenic is released from the tailing and sterilizes the streams.

    Funny acronym since it's anything but "NORMal". :shades:

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  • texasestexases Posts: 5,577
    One of the biggest barriers to NGV adoption on a wide scale could be, surprise, the "Pickens Plan" and wind electricity generation. He promoted wind power at the same time he promoted NGVs. Guess what? Every megawatt of wind power has to have 100% duplication with backup generators, and these generators have to be able to switch on instantly, the wind can die in a matter of minutes. The only backups that can do that are natural gas-fired turbines. So as windpower increases, the demand for natural gas power generation increases, preventing large volumes from being available for NGVs.
  • gagricegagrice San DiegoPosts: 28,993
    And that is what makes the TRUE cost of Wind generation so expensive. If they spent the money on clean coal that has been wasted on Solar and Wind we would not worry about other forms of power generation. There is a reason the Chinese are building 2-3 new coal generation plants per week. It is the best power source for the least overall cost. Clean it up even more and nothing with match it. Though NG is very handy and quick to get on line. So I agree about T-Boone's plan. Last I read he backed out on the wind plan.
  • plektoplekto Posts: 3,738
    Except that coal is never "clean".

    In fact, more radiation is released from coal burning than ever is released from nuclear power (short of a total melt-down, of course). More, in fact, from the ash that's left over.

    And we don't technically have an infinite supply of coal, either. But I suspect that the Moon will keep orbiting for at least the next few thousand years (who knows, we might blow it up by then).
  • I'm sorry I actually don't know what the word "new" is doing next to "wells"
  • steverstever Ex Yooper, just arrived in New MexicoPosts: 40,547
    Texases said " There are just about 0 proven cases of these new wells fracturing into fresh water aquifers."

    I found a link pointing to new wells causing contamination of existing water wells due to the fracking process.

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