2012 Honda Civic Natural GasEnlarge Photo
Some way to go
So natural gas is perfect for the trucking industry, then?
Not just yet. For a start, Department of Energy figures suggest the network of filling stations is fairly small. Only 53 liquefied natural gas (LNG) and 1,047 compressed natural gas (CNG) stations pepper the U.S.--in comparison to 157,000 gasoline filling stations.
It's something which has hampered the adoption of natural gas in passenger cars too, but it's rather more important for truckers crossing the country than those who just need a filling station at the end of their street.
The number is increasing, but it faces an identical issue to any other alternative fuel--the "chicken and egg" issue of ensuring supply and demand for vehicles and filling stations is evenly matched.
Some estimates suggest that around a third of new heavy-duty vehicles could be natural gas-powered over the next few decades--though that's by no means a certainty.
There's also a risk the attractive price of natural gas could rise. Low price means high demand from other sectors too, pushing the price up and negating the cost benefits.
More sense than cars?
Ultimately, converting the trucking fleet to natural gas is more productive than doing the same for passenger vehicles.
The cost savings are more effective, as trucks use vastly more fuel on an individual basis--$1.50 per gallon is a much greater difference when you have a 200 gallon tank than it is with a 12-gallon tank.
Likewise, the emissions savings are greater per vehicle, even though fuel consumption itself is greater on natural gas than it is on diesel.
And while only one natural gas vehicle is currently on sale in the U.S, the Honda Civic Natural Gas, many commercial vehicles already use the fuel.
Fleets of commercial vehicles requiring natural gas will be more of a driving force for improving the natural gas filling network than the occasional passenger vehicle. Only half the existing network of stations is open to the public--the other half is already used by fleets.
If natural gas trucks start filling the roads then the stations will appear to accommodate them--and then the market for natural gas cars may increase with it.