Tuesday 18 September, 2012. The Green Piece Column.
Natural gas vehicles (NGV) have yet to gain traction in the UK and Europe, despite their growing market success elsewhere in the world. But with the news of a new Mercedes B-Class natural gas vehicle called the B 200 Natural Gas Drive (see story), on the way, could this be a sign of growing interest in this type of vehicle?
A new report from Pike Research (see story) suggests that the global market for natural gas vehicles is on the rise, specifically for trucks, where there is expected to be a compound annual growth rate of 14 per cent from 2012 to 2019.
They might not be popular here in the UK yet, but countries including China, Iran, Brazil, Pakistan and India are already strong markets for NGVs.
Over in the States, there is already a production CNG (compressed natural gas) vehicle already available on the road for non-business customers, in the form of the Honda Civic GX.
What are natural gas vehicles?
Despite the name, natural gas vehicles don’t just have to use mineral natural gas but can also use synthetic gas and biogas. With this in mind, their green credentials can become more pronounced compared to traditional fossil fuel vehicles.
Natural gas is usually compressed for use in vehicles and referred to as CNG but it can also be stored in a liquid state, understandably called LNG. It is possible to fit an aftermarket conversion to vehicles to run on natural gas, and in Europe, this is the only way that you can currently get your mitts on one.
There are three main types of CNG vehicles; those designed to run on CNG alone, CNG blended with diesel or dual-fuel vehicles where two fuel sources are available to work independently of each other. In this last case, the driver is often able to choose which fuel to run the vehicle on. In the case where one source is depleted, the car should be able to seamlessly switch to the available source.
Mercedes B 200 Natural Gas Drive is a dual-fuel vehicles-fitted with both a CNG tank and petrol tank- whereas the Honda Civic GX is CNG only.
Worldwide there is some availability of production CNG vehicles but for most they are aftermarket conversions. Companies such as GM, Ford and Suzuki offer aftermarket conversions in some markets. In the US, GM-owned brand Chevrolet recently announced it had secured its largest ever order of CNG vehicles (see story) with an order for 1,200 Chevrolet Express vans.
Despite Pike’s report of rising demand, natural gas vehicles face a number of problems to significantly increase their market. For one; a lack of refuelling infrastructure. But other obstacles include problems with storage, the cost involved in developing and producing NGVs, market uncertainty and ensuring there is a strong financial and environmental advantage to running them make up some of the others.
Natural gas should be significantly cheaper to buy than petrol, with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimating the cost at around $2 a gallon (US gallons of course-slightly smaller than UK ones) compared to near $4 dollar a gallon for gasoline. However natural gas is typically less energy intensive than petrol and therefore you’ll use slightly more per mile.
In the UK, CNGVehicles.co.uk suggests that you could save around 30 per cent in fuel costs using despite this poorer fuel economy. Powershift.org.uk suggests that it costs under 6p per mile to run a small vehicle on natural gas (compared with 10p or more cost of running a typical car on petrol)-that’s more than an electric vehicle (at around 2 pence a mile), but still an impressive saving compared to petrol.
Compared to other alternative fuel vehicles such as electric cars, a CNG vehicle offers a range closer to that of a gasoline car. The Honda Civic GX for example, offers a range of around 200-250 miles compared to around 500 miles per full tank for the Honda Civic VX. Although that is still a lot less than the gasoline model, it is more than the typical range of a comparable electric car, at around 100 miles per charge.
Burning CNG is cleaner than burning petrol, with the US Department of Energy estimating that it offers greenhouse gas emissions of around 30–40 per cent. Another advantage, at least for the US, is that it could help the country reduce its dependency on imported energy resources, with nearly 87 per cent of U.S. natural gas used is domestically produced.
Installing a CNG tank can mean a loss of boot or rear passenger space, this is one reason why CNG conversions are most often seen on larger vehicles run by businesses.
So what’s the chance of a UK market for CNG?
Mercedes has yet to confirm exactly where its B 200 Natural Gas Drive will be available and just what production levels we can expect. Full details aren’t expected to be released until the Paris Motor Show later this month (September 27, 2012) but we’re not expecting that the UK will be one of the lucky markets to see this vehicle’s launch. Sob.
Sadly, the CNG market over here so far has been largely occupied by a few hardened enthusiasts and a few large fleets willing to request aftermarket conversions and have their own CNG tanks installed on their premises.
While CNG has its environmental and financial advantages, here in the UK it is likely to be hampered for the time being by the same problems which have kept the LPG market suppressed; namely a lack of refuelling infrastructure, lack of consumer awareness and the slightly higher fuel consumption levels which slightly skew the running costs, especially when petrol and diesel prices fluctuate and come down in cost.
Although worth considering if you run a large fleet, CNG is likely to remain an unlikely contestant for the typical, cost-conscious UK car buyer.
Faye has been writing about cars and environmental issues since 2007. A suspected eco-warrior working on the corporate inside, Faye mainly likes the weird, quirky vehicles that show a distinct environmental advantage. Her ideal car has enough room to fit a bale of hay in the boot. When not working, she likes nothing better than to head out on her bicycle and explore the countryside.
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