Billionaire oil man turned energy independence activist T. Boone Pickens has lately been doing the cable news talk show rounds again, trying put a little wind back into the sails of his flagging Pickens Plan. The alternative energy scheme would seek to replace gasoline with compressed natural gas, which generates 30 percent less emissions and is readily abundant within the United States. Pickens spent what any non-billionaire would consider a fortune promoting and investing in this idea, with little or nothing to show for it as of yet.
According to a two-year study out of M.I.T. though, natural gas really is the future—just not of transportation. The report says it’s highly unlikely that natural gas will ever power more than 15 percent of vehicles in the United States, but predicts that by 2050, the fuel will replace coal as the leading source of electrical power in the United States. Simply by ramping up natural gas production and electrical generation, the study says that “CO2 emissions could be reduced by as much as 22 percent with no additional capital investment.”
So even if mainstream commuter cars will never carry CNG tanks, the electric vehicles of tomorrow are likely to indirectly get much of the juice they use to charge their batteries from natural gas.
Don’t Write Off CNG Vehicles Just Yet
M.I.T. found some realistic uses for natural gas vehicles: “There are two vehicle market segments likely to offer an attractive payback period in the near term: high-mileage, light-duty fleet vehicles (e.g., taxis, government vehicles) and high-mileage, non-long-haul, heavy-duty vehicles (e.g., urban buses, delivery trucks).”
And some carmakers do see still potential for growth in the market. The Honda Civic GX is the only mass-produced natural gas car available in the United States, though the company has been reluctant to expand production on the vehicle—which is only available in four states. Honda seems to be biding its time, waiting to see whether government incentives will lead to more natural gas pumps at filling stations and how the market will react to an inevitable uptick in oil prices. If there is a clamor for more natural gas Civics in the U.S., the Japanese automaker is capable of significantly ramping up production at its Greensburg, Ind. plant, which began manufacturing the GX last year.
Chrysler is reportedly weighing a much more aggressive move into CNG. According to a recent report by Edmunds, the company is likely to offer several vehicles with a CNG option in the coming years. FIAT, which took over Chrysler last year after it declared bankruptcy, already sells 130,000 natural gas vehicles per year in Europe. Just how many of these cars will be built and whether this will translate into a significant increase in the number of these vehicles on American roads though is anybody’s guess.