October 21, 2014

Is a Natural Gas Fueled Car a Good Idea?

In a recent article T.Boone Pickens said we should use natural gas cars more.   I agree in general.   Natural gas is more abundant and cheaper here in the USA than oil.   It doesn't require refining and is pumped straight to most homes.  Natural gas burns cleaner than gasoline too.

Apparently the only natural gas car out there is the Honda Civic GX.   They cost $25-30k which is about the same as a Civic Hybrid.     However the natural gas car should save you around $200-500 a year in fuel if you drive 15,000 miles a year.    There is also apparently a Ford F-150 truck option for CNG/LNG but thats a new option and I don't see as much on it.  They do say that tanks would cost $6000 to $9000 which I think would mostly make that kill that as far as cost effectiveness.

There are some state level tax incentives as well.  Apparently 20 states have some sort of incentive.   You can find it your state has incentives hereOklahoma gives 10% of vehicle cost up to $1500.   Texas rebates $2500.   Pennsylvania has a $1000 rebate.   I'm not sure about the details on the tax credits or rebates so you'd want to research that on your own.

How much you save with natural gas will vary though based on the cost of natural gas in your area.  The average price of natural gas nationally  is about $1 per therm for residential rates..   The natural gas equivalent to a gallon is about 1.14 therms.   So on average the cost is $1.14 for natural gas equivalent to a gallon of gasoline.      Natural gas prices vary across the nation.    The EIA tracks natural gas price data by state.  Its over $4 per therm in Hawaii and under $0.80 per therm in Colorado.

Prices at public fueling stations seem to be more than home prices.  Public stations tend to range around $1.50 to $2.50 a gallon.   A map of prices is here.

Honda does not recommend home refueling according to the  Civic GX owners manual.    "Due to the wide variation of natural gas quality for home use, Honda does not recommend the use of home refueling at this time"    I don't know if home refueling hardware does a good job of ensuring the gas is filtered properly or not.   If you did fuel at home you'd have to buy the refueling hardware and have it installed.  That can be as much as $6000 total bill.

Public CNG stations are limited.   This is a major draw back to natural gas cars and a key reason we don't see more of them.  But that makes ita  chicken-vs-egg situation.   There aren't enough refueling stations to drive demand for cars but lack of cars doesn't give incentive to open more refueling stations.   The Honda GX has only about 8 gasoline gallon fuel capacity and  mileage of 27 city/ 38 highway, so you can only drive around 200-300 miles.   
There is a map on the EIA site.   I captured their map below.

Source : EIA

Note the light red sites are private so only the dark red locations are of use to the general public.
Theres large sections of the nation with no refueling locations at all.  Looks like South Dakota doesn't have a single refueling station.   You'd have a hard time driving from Seattle to anywhere else I'd imagine given the lack of public stations outside the Puget Sound.   But refueling at your home exclusively would probably work just fine for most people.    A 200 mile local driving range is more than enough for anything but longer distance day trips.

Overall I like the idea of natural gas fueled cars and they can make sense.  Its cheaper to operate than a gas based car and some states have tax rebates to boot.    If you're looking at a Honda Civic or similar size car then the natural gas based Civic GX might be worth a look.  But I'd definitely make sure the finances make sense.  If you have to buy a home fueling station then that extra cost can make CNG car more expensive overall even with cheaper home natural gas.


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