Is a CNG Vehicle in your Future?A few nights ago when I was watching our local news TV station, a segment caught my attention that involved the completion of a CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) station before the end of summer 2012. This, of course, piqued my curiosity, so I decided to take a look at what CNG could mean for the driving public.

First of all, however, I should note that my interest in this type of automobile is not new. In fact, I have often wondered why automobile manufacturers didn’t look to this natural resource to make their products less dependable on foreign fuel prices. That doesn’t mean that I am unaware of the many hybrids and electric cars available; it is just that I had always thought that natural gas would be a great way to make our country energy independent. Or is it? Does the US have enough natural gas reserves to meet the need if we change automobile engines over to compressed natural gas?

According to a February 29, 2012, article by National Geographic, the estimate of available US natural gas reserves is being disputed. Some claim that, at the current rate of consumption, we have reserves that could last for some 92 years. However, others claim that this figure is highly suspect given the reserves we now know exist and that the actual reserves may prove to be much lower.

So, with this point still in question, I proceeded to the Honda website where I learned that the company already produces a Civic model designed to run on CNG. To my knowledge, the Honda CNG is currently the only CNG vehicle being mass produced, and is available for the US consumer. However, there are other companies — such as Ford and others — that offer conversions that will allow consumers to convert their gasoline engines to ones that use compressed natural gas. For now, though, Honda appears to have the corner on the CNG market.

With my curiosity getting the better of me, I then went to visit our local Honda dealership hoping to test drive a Honda Civic CNG, but there were none in stock. The salesperson stated that one could be special ordered but that it would take a “couple of weeks” before they would have it in stock. When I asked him how many of the Honda Civic CNG vehicles the dealership had sold during the past few years, he answered none, citing that people weren’t interested in a car that would be difficult to find fuel for. It appears that currently the closest CNG stations are at least 80 miles from where we live. So, without a model to test drive, I had to depend on the reviews of others and the most thorough one I found was written by Consumer Reports.

In its review, Consumer Reports discussed several items that I would consider huge stumbling blocks for a CNG-powered consumer vehicle:

  • First, the fuel tank. The current fuel tank in a Honda Civic CNG vehicle is only eight gallons. The estimated range for the vehicle, with a full tank of gas, is between 160 and 180 miles.
  • Second, the vehicle cost: A CNG-powered Honda Civic costs approximately $27,000 — about $7,000 more than an equally equipped gasoline powered Honda Civic.
  • Third, refueling: There are a limited of CNG stations available — less than 800 compared to 175,000 stations selling gas or diesel. However, for an additional $5,000, you could purchase your own home refueling station. (Now here is the really odd part. Honda does not recommend home refueling because of contaminants present in home natural gas supplies.)

For me, the lack of refueling stations is a major problem since my wife and I usually visit family about four times a year, in either Marshall or Arlington, Texas, so that means we’d have to refuel about half way there and back. It should be noted that the roads we use are major highways and are not limited to back roads, yet we wouldn’t have access to enough fuel to complete the trip. To give you an idea of our predicament, one leg of our journey would require that we travel a distance of 186 miles between refueling stations, which is just about at the maximum range of the Honda Civic CNG. This doesn’t take into account delays for traffic, road construction, or a side trip.

The next problem I see is the cost of fuel which, as of this writing, averages $1.89 per gallon of compressed natural gas; this sounds terrific since regular unleaded gasoline is averaging $3.79 a gallon. So, with a savings of about $1.90 a gallon, why am I concerned? That’s easy: We have all seen what speculators have done with oil prices over the years, so why would we expect that natural gas prices wouldn’t rise if investors believed that they could make money through speculating on it?

My final concern is the cost of the vehicle. At $27,000, you are going to pay a premium of approximately $7,000 to purchase a CNG-powered Honda Civic over what you would pay for its gasoline counterpart. Depending on how much gas you currently use, it could take up to five years or even longer to recover your fuel savings. With that being said, I personally believe that the negatives outweigh the positives and that a CNG-powered Honda Civic will not be in my immediate future.

But how about you? Would you consider buying a vehicle powered by natural gas for yourself?

Comments welcome.

Note: Fuel prices are approximate.
Source: CNGpricing.com

CC licensed Flickr photo above shared by darinmcclure