Natural Gas as Auto Fuel
Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) vehicles—sometimes called Natural Gas Vehicles (NGVs)—yield fuel cost and economic savings when compared to any other vehicle, including a hybrid.
- Gallon of gasoline equivalent or GGE: Since CNG is normally sold as a gas rather than a liquid, it isn’t measured in gallons, but can be converted on an energy basis that equals a gallon of gasoline.
In early 2008, the average price of CNG in the United States was less than $1.00 per GGE, while gasoline has gone through the roof. While CNG maintains a decided price-per-gallon advantage, CNG vehicles have lower fuel efficiency than hybrid vehicles. A Civic GX, for example, averages 32 mpg, while a Prius or Civic Hybrid is rated above 40 mpg. So while a GGE of CNG is cheaper, the Civic GX needs more fuel to operate, and therefore erases some—but not all—of the economic benefits of CNG.
> Read an overview of CNG vehicles as an auto fuel
Where to Fill Up?
There’s a major difference between filling up a gasoline hybrid and a CNG vehicle. Compressed natural gas (pressurized at either 3,000 or 3,600 psi) is available through a network of almost 750 stations in the United States. However, nearly a quarter of these stations are in California, so CNG vehicle owners in other states have fewer fueling options. In addition, many CNG stations sell only to pre-approved customers and have limited operating hours, a major change for customers who are used to purchasing gasoline 24-7.
CNG does offer one option that gasoline does not: the ability to fuel in your own garage, as long as your home has an existing natural gas line. Honda now offers a home refueling unit to buyers of the Civic GX that fills the vehicle at a rate of roughly .4 GGE per hour. This means if the vehicle is parked overnight for 12 hours, it can be replenished with 5 GGE of CNG, enough fuel for a 160 mile round-trip commute. Manufactured by FuelMaker, the unit (called Phill) must be professionally installed inside or outside a home garage. The unit is priced between $3,000 and $4,000, although Honda previously has offered free 4-year leases of refueling units to customers in Southern California.
Honda claims that with a home refueling unit installed, the cost of CNG fill-ups can be as much as 65 percent less than the cost of gasoline. Given the increasing cost of natural gas during the past few years, this claim seems a bit optimistic. At this year’s average residential prices for natural gas, a GGE would cost $1.84, about 17 percent less than a gallon of gasoline. Of course, savings could be higher for owners in states like Michigan or Colorado where natural gas is substantially cheaper than the national average.
The Need to Plan Ahead
The option of home refueling does free the CNG vehicle owner from visiting the gas station. However, travel away from home will require mapping out a network of CNG stations, particularly since the range of NGVs tends to be lower than their gasoline or hybrid counterparts. The Civic GX, for example, stores 8 GGE at 3600 psi, giving the vehicle a maximum range of 312 miles. This is in contrast with the Civic Hybrid, which theoretically can manage 627 miles from the 12.3 gallons of gasoline it its tank. The reduced range results mainly from the difficulty of storing the pressurized fuel on board the vehicle. While a bigger tank could be used, the existing tank in the Civic GX already intrudes into the vehicle’s trunk, reducing cargo room by about 40 percent.