Guest Post: Natural Gas More Sustainable than an Electric Car?
Posted by Machines Italia Canada | 26 Jun 2012
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Most of the car manufacturers in the world see a future with roads full of hybrids and pure electrical vehicles. But these vehicles are still fraught with problems, including the range on batteries, the high cost, and the energy density stored in batteries (about 1/20th that of gasoline).
FIAT is taking a different approach and is ignoring batteries and hybrids, except to dismiss them as too heavy and too expensive and even too dangerous. At the FIAT research centre in Turin, Italy, general manager Stephanon Fiorentin told visiting journalists from Canada and the United States that the company is placing its bets on compressed natural gas (CNG). He and his team made some compelling arguments.
Superficially, there is a lot going for CNG. It emits about 25 percent lower emissions of CO2 per unit of energy than gasoline; the supply appears to be growing; and it is domestic rather than imported from unfriendly or unstable countries; and it burns a lot cleaner than gasoline, with lower particulates. Ozone, NOX, and aromatics are all reduced anywhere from 23 percent to 90 percent.
CNG runs in conventional engines, there is good geographical distribution of supply of gas, and while eventually the goal is to get completely off of fossil fuels and onto renewables, Fiorentin said that CNG is "a strategic asset that supports progressive migration from fossil fuels to biomethane and hydrogen from renewable resources." His company is already testing cars that are running perfectly well on up to 30 percent hydrogen with no significant technological changes.
It gets better. Fiorentin notes that whereas a hybrid costs about $9,000 more than a conventional gas-powered car and a battery electric vehicle costs about $21,000 more, a CNG car will cost only about $4,000 more than a regular car. And while the operation savings for an electric car are about twice as high for the consumer, it will never pay off the difference. In comparison, with current natural gas prices, it takes only two years for the extra cost of the CNG car to pay off. Then the savings begin!
There are, however, range (or distance-per-fill up) issues with CNG cars, just as there are in electric vehicles. But designing a CNG car to run on dual fuels is trivial; with a little gasoline tank on reserve, the cars can go up to 900km before needing a fill up.
Finally, Fiorentin said that taking "small steps" like building dual fuel CNG cars are relatively easy to do (the cars are quite popular in Europe because they are so much cheaper to fill up). Developing an infrastructure for electric vehicles is a huge project, and people will take a very long time to accept the range limitations and high cost of entry.
Fiorentin paints a rosy picture of a CNG-powered future that doesn't look too different from the present. But it's true that FIAT can cut CO2 emmissions significantly with its conversion to CNG and the current development of powerful, tiny engines (the latest is a two cylinder .9 litre that pumps out 110 horsepower -- enough to make a lot of people happy).
But the inescapable reality is that natural gas is a fossill fuel that produces CO2 when it burns. The vast amount of new gas is being released by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has its own environmental costs and carbon footprint.
It is hard to tell whether FIAT is making a virtue of necessity, given that the company had no electric or hybrid vehicles in the development pipeline, or if they are really on to something. Certainly all of the major predictions about electricity production have had to be revised in the face of the changes in the natural gas situation; perhaps in the short term, the path to a reduced carbon footprint in cars is a turn towards CNG instead of electrics and hybrids. Not everyone believes, as FIAT suggested, that "personal mobility will continue to be a 'must'" for society, or that calling the company's technology "a bridge to electrification" is anything more than a tagline. You can read more work by Lloyd Alter here.