Is Renewable Energy From Natural Gas Really Worth It?

Source: Honda
Source: Honda

Forbes hit us with an interesting thought a while back: “Why aren’t natural gas-powered cars selling well?” Compressed Natural Gas (or CNG for short) has been used by fleet vehicles like buses, delivery trucks, and work vans for years now, but it has been slow to catch on with the consumers. Honda has been offering its Civic GX for years now, and in true Honda fashion, it’s an industry first. Yet for some reason, this “clean fuel” option remains out of favor, even when Honda offered a discount in the form of $3,000 worth of fuel alongside $3,000 of government-backed cash.

Meanwhile, manufacturers like Ford sell loads of CNG vehicles to fleet owners, but offer nothing to consumers. Maybe other manufacturers are patiently biding their time while Honda does all the dirty work and tests the market for them. The Civic GX has been on the market longer than the Tesla Roadster, Nissan Leaf, and Chevy Volt, but all of them have easily outsold the GX. This could partially be a pricing versus efficiency issue since the Civic GX costs around $6,000 more than a standard Civic EX sedan and actually gets worse gas mileage.

Forbes reported that a 2010 MIT study shows that a driver can only go 224 miles on a tank of CNG, but they can go twice as far if one were to burn that gas in a power plant and then send the electricity to a plug-in vehicle. Natural gas cars aren’t tons of fun to drive either, because unlike an electric vehicle which has almost instantaneous power, natural gas cars tend to plod along at a very unassuming walrus-like pace.

Natural gas cars also need a specialized infrastructure, which is quite expensive — a CNG filling station typically costs around $750,000, according to Forbes. While home refueling units give people the ability to compress their own methane at home, they cost around $4,000. Range anxiety is a genuine concern too, as there are only 824 CNG filling stations in the U.S. according to The U.S. Department of Energy, and many of these stations are closed to the public, Forbes noted.

Source: Honda
Source: Honda

Another report by Forbes says how CNG advocates claim “natural gas is clean, cheap, abundant, and domestic.” Assertions have also been made that pricing for automotive natural gas can be “more stable than gasoline — because a bigger proportion of the price of CNG goes to pay capital and equipment costs.”

Primus Green Energy has another way of doing things, and it has built a pilot plant that converts natural gas into gasoline. The company’s goal is to convert domestically sourced fuel into gasoline. This approach seems especially appealing as it would allow all of the other vehicles on the road the ability to use this modified product. Forbes says this technique is really not as far fetched as it sounds, and the design Primus is building off is a process that Mobil developed back in 1979 for a project in New Zealand.

So if the groundwork is already there, what’s stopping us from jumping on this bandwagon and ditching foreign oil once and for all? For one, the final stage of converting natural gas to gasoline requires a ridiculous amount of energy, and since energy equals money, this conversion process may not actually be a feasible option on a large scale. There also is the issue with foreign relations and America’s long lasting relationships with governments and industries around the world. Globalization is a double-sided sword, so it isn’t like we can just settle our tabs with Saudi Arabia overnight, and send them a fruit basket with a card saying “It’s been swell. Thanks for everything guys.”

There also is the issue with fracking, and all of the environmental impacts associated with drilling for natural gas. Natural gas extraction is a a filthy business, and no matter how environmentally friendly we think we may be, there is no getting around the fact that watersheds across America are getting poisoned by the minute courtesy of natural gas-related fracking. There is no real way to be a winner with natural gas, and CNG technology is nothing more than a marketing ploy for companies like Honda who want to show us their “green thumb.”