Saturday, September 6, 2008

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)

I hate to do it again but, I have some more problems with T.Boone Pickens plan for getting us off foreign oil. While I agree that Compressed Natural Gas is a possible means to that end, I, at best, only believe it to be a stop gap and short-lived alternative.

Certainly, natural gas resources are absolutely abundant in the United States and cheaper to extract that oil. As a fuel though, it is a "weak" alternative over gasoline. It really lacks the power for high power applications such as trucks and diesel trains. That's because the energy rating of natural gas is lower than either gasoline or ethanol.

Secondly, because it is primarily a gas and not a liquid, there are serious problems with the on-board storage in an automobile or any other vehicle. When a car is converted to natural gas, several tanks are used to replaced the single traditional gasoline tank. Often, tanks are added below the floor of the passenger compartment. Even with additional tanks, the driving range is generally half that of a gasoline powered vehicle.

Third, retrofitting existing vehicles is very expensive. While there are some claims that an automobile can be converted for as little as $8,000, the general assumption is that cars will, at a minimum, cost $12,000 to be retrofitted. Buses and trucks will cost upwards of $50,000 to convert to CNG.

Fourth, there needs to be an infrastructure built to accommodate CNG powered cars. Up until now, most CNG operated vehicles are fleet vehicles for locally-based operations such as government vehicles or city buses. The filling operations for those vehicles have been built at the parking and garage facilities for those vehicles. Under T. Boone Picken's plan, CNG filling stations will literally have to be built from coast to coast to accommodate the average American driver. Unlike a gasoline filling stations, with their fuel tanks and pumps, a CNG filling station requires more expansive underground storage space because it is a "pressurized" gas and not a liquid. The storage tanks are more expensive because the must handle high pressure levels and the OSHA/EPA requirements are stringent. Additionally, the drive-up filling operation is more complex and needs higher maintenance to insure that there is no leakage. The coupling to a car is under very high pressure and must be checked and serviced quite often to insure a tight seal. This adds to the operational cost of CNG filling station and those costs are substantially higher than the typical gasoline filling station. A CNG service station will cost $200,000 or more to build. That is a cost that is over-and-above typical gasoline service station. Because CNG is less compact than liquid gasoline, the tanker operations to keep these stations with full tanks has to twice as frequent as a gasoline tanker truck operation. The additional capital cost of setting up CNG filling stations across this country could be a seriously limiting factor; especially in small town America where an extra $200,000 might never be available to build a CNG operation. Without expansive refilling operations being available, the consumer will avoid CNG operated vehicles.

Another consideration is the dangers associated with CNG. In an automobile accident, a ruptured CNG tank is actually safer than a rupture of a gasoline tank. If a rupture gas tank catches fire, the gas, which is lighter than air, will escape upwards into the sky and act like a blow torch that is localized at the point of exit. Gasoline, on the other hand, will spread on the ground and a fire could ensue wherever the liquid gasoline winds up. The real problem could be an accident in an enclosed space such as in a tunnel or some kind of enclosed parking garage. In that case the CNG could be trapped and the explosion could be like a bomb going off. Leaking tanks in the average homeowners garage could explode if ignited by a spark from a light switch or from a garage-installed gas water heater.

For those "global warming" proponents, CNG is just another form of carbon-based fuel that will not head off ocean front properties being created in the Rockies when all the ice melts (Just a joke!). Don't expect Al Gore and his Democratic followers to jump on the CNG bandwagon. Sorry, T. Boone!

Lastly, even T.Boone Pickens admits that CNG is merely a stop-gap or bridge to future fuels like hydrogen. Why then would anyone buy into it. That would be like buying a Sony BetaMax video tape system; knowing the VHS would, ultimately, become the standard.

I think that if we are going to have a plan, it should be one with staying power like hydrogen. In the meantime, I think that we should do everything from drilling, to hydroelectric, to biofuel, to nuclear, etc. to get by. Where CNG makes sense, then let's do it. But we should settle on what should be the energy of the future and use our government research and spending to achieve that goal. We have a lot of natural gas and coal, we just need to "wisely" use it to both our short-term and our long-term advantage. But, "completely" investing in a short-term CNG plan is not what we should be doing. That's just my opinion.

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