T Boone Pickens suggests it is a good idea and questions why there are not more on the road. The question he says, why are we not driving more compressed natural gas vehicles?

Almost everyday we hear reports of the benefits of flex-fuel cars and how foolish we have been for not converting our vehicles to this technology. CNG is a flex-fuel that has been around since the 1930’s. News reports indicate that the Saudis and the Iranians plan to convert more of their cars to CNG so they will have more oil to sell on the world market.

Many of us have seen film of the venting of gas in oil fields in places like the Persian Gulf and Texas. That bright burning flame, known as a gas flare, seems omnipresent in any picture of oil production. That flare is fueled by natural gas. There is so much of it being produced as by-product that it is burned as waste. Current reserves of natural gas in the US are at all time highs, according to government estimates and the US has a tremendous capacity to produce the product if needed, says the Energy Information Administration.

David Trusty, a spokesperson for Piedmont Natural Gas, says he drove a CNG Ford Fairmont company car 25 years ago and it had very good performance, was safe to drive, had cleaner emissions and was a little more economical than a gasoline powered vehicle.

Trusty said the company uses 30-35 CNG vehicles in Piedmont’s service area and they work very well. The company has a refueling station for its vehicles and they are gased-up each night ready for use the next day.

The Car Talk guys Tom and Ray Magliozzi, aka Click and Clack, say that if you want to convert your present car to CNG or buy a new one from the factory it can be a bit pricey. A factory ready CNG automobile will cost 3,500 to 7,000 dollars more than the same model designed to just run on gasoline.

Conversion of an existing gasoline car to CNG could cost 3,000 to 5,000 dollars according to the Magliozzi brothers. Since gasoline costs roughly twice as much as CNG the cost/benefit could work out to be 5-6 years for the average driver.

The downside of CNG is that the tank needed for the fuel takes-up a lot of space in the trunk and there are presently few CNG “gas stations”. If you have natural gas piped to your home for heating or cooking then you could have your own fueling station in your garage. The fueling port would have to meet local building codes, but is not unreasonable or ultra-expensive, says the International Association of Natural Gas Vehicles.

On the upside CNG costs less than gasoline and gives better fuel mileage. Mechanics report that CNG cars run cleaner with fewer emissions and require less maintenance than gasoline burning cars on average. CNG cars can also run on hydrogen, flex-fuels and regular gasoline.

The Energy Information Administration estimates that there are currently over 30,000 CNG powered cars and trucks in the US today. Nearly all US auto manufacturers are presently test marketing a CNG car.

Trusty said that he thinks the biggest obstacles to CNG being mainstreamed is the lack of infrastructure; fueling stations, increasing production, CNG delivery systems and re-tooling to manufacture the cars themselves.

“I believe we would have to make a commitment as a nation to do more natural gas exploration in the West and the continental shelf, open-up government lands with proven reserves of natural gas to drilling and relax legislative limitations on the production of CNG. It is all very possible, but the commitment would need to be there for it to succeed,” Trusty said.

Ronnie O’Kelly of Leader Ford in Seneca says that at present they are not selling CNG equipped cars, but they “are on the horizon.” Rich Kirby of Piedmont Honda in Anderson says that California and Ohio are the only states that Honda is testing the market for CNG cars. Kirby said a customer might be able to purchase a CNG equipped vehicle in Anderson, but it was more likely in larger cities like Atlanta or Charlotte.

Vince Jackson, reporting from Anderson, SC


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