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  • Detonation - Natural Gas or Diesel Power?

Detonation - Natural Gas or Diesel Power?

To CNG or Not to CNG?

John Lehenbauer
Jun 24, 2016
Photographers: John Lehenbauer
When talking about natural gas, the first things I think of are my stove, water heater, and the monthly bill I receive for using the fuel. For a lot of people, that’s the extent of its role in their day-to-day lives. But natural gas has much broader uses: in manufacturing, power generation, and as an alternative fuel. The latter use has been on the rise, especially for diesel engines.
Using natural gas to fuel truck and bus engines is a practice that has been around for some time. It’s not uncommon to see a trash truck or a city bus with a CNG (compressed natural gas) or LNG (liquefied natural gas) sticker on it. Trash truck and bus fleets are used mostly for local service, which makes using CNG easy (because they are never too far from the pump).
Now think about long-haul trucks. Have you seen one with a CNG or LNG sticker? There is a reason you don’t see these trucks use natural gas. Once out of the city or away from a truck port, there are very few stations providing it. Interstate truckers need readily available fuel, so for convenience, if not necessity, most have remained reliant on diesel.
Photo 2/3   |   001 CNG Station
A compressed natural gas (CNG) station near Los Angeles International Airport looks a lot like a regular gas station. The main users seem to be shuttle vans from the airport.

A gentleman named T. Boone Pickens wants to change that reliance. In his policy proposal, Pickens Plan, he gives an explanation of how the U.S. can become less dependent on foreign oil through the use of wind, solar, and natural gas to produce energy. In the proposal, he talks about our need for more wind and solar electricity production to help reduce crude usage but mostly focuses on commercial transportation and how it should be fueled by natural gas. He wants the U.S. government to mandate that all heavy-duty trucks and fleets convert to natural gas, creating an estimated savings of 3 million barrels of foreign oil each day. The plan suggests tapping the abundant gas deposits here to provide the needed fuel.
I like the idea of becoming less dependent on oil that comes from other parts of the world. If tapping natural gas resources will allow us to do that, I’m on board. But should this be a forced conversion like Pickens wants, or a slow, more natural transition? The latter makes more sense to me. If companies are required to convert their fleets to CNG, they could incur large costs that might put some of the smaller enterprises out of business. I believe that theoretically, if natural gas production were increased and the fuel is more readily available to the average customer (at a significantly lower cost than diesel), this would create enough demand to eventually have a genuine progression from one type of fuel to the other. Thus, allowing fleets to switch at their own pace.
Photo 3/3   |   002 CNG Station Prices
Natural gas is cheaper than diesel fuel in the Los Angeles area, but is it cheap enough to get companies to convert to it?

The increased use of CNG (and LNG) is already happening without being required. It is more commonplace in fleets today than it was 10 years ago. This is driven by cost and environmental concerns; natural gas engines create less pollution than diesel. But getting more people to transition is going to take a while. The number of CNG stations has increased across the country, but not enough to really drive change. According to ngvamerica.org, there are 1,626 stations (public and private) across the country. California has the most, with 168 public and 138 private outlets. That seems like a pretty good start, right? Now, compare it to the 3,847 (as of 2012) diesel stations in the Golden State. There are more stations with diesel in one state than there are natural gas stations in the entire country. I think natural gas is headed in the right direction, but it has some catching up to do to become a truly viable (and preferred) alternative. However, if the price of diesel skyrockets again, we may see a faster conversion to natural gas.
Here is something I found interesting about T. Boone Pickens. He owns Clean Energy Fuels, which is the parent company of Clean Energy, the largest chain of natural-gas fueling stations in the country. Wait a minute, push a natural gas plan and own a chain of fueling stations…is there a connection? OK, maybe he truly wants our energy independence as a country, but it is hard to not believe that money is a factor in his plan. It wouldn’t surprise me if he also has financial interests in wind-and-solar energy production.
—John
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