Natural Gas – Conversions, Vehicles and Technology

Evolving Alt-Fuel Infrastructure

July 2014, Green Fleet Magazine - Cover Story

by Stephane Babcock

Somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania sits what is considered “America’s oldest drive-thru gas station,” which has been in operation since 1909. When building the station, one can only imagine that the owner heard a number of the same questions and concerns that alternative-fuel infrastructure providers now hear when setting up natural gas, propane-autogas, hydrogen, and electric stations around the U.S. With more than a century under its belt, some might say that gasoline infrastructure has already gone through many of the hurdles now faced by its not-so-distant alt-fuel cousins.

Driving Policy & Preparation

As with the early phases of gasoline infrastructure creation in the U.S., many alt-fuel industries are looking ahead at what is coming down the road rather than what is parked at the pump. For the American Gas Association (AGA), that means ensuring policies are aligned with the market forces to help accelerate the trends.

“In the 1990s, we were trying to do something in a completely policy-driven way and the market realities weren’t there,” said Kathryn Clay, vice president of policy strategy at the AGA. “The shale gas revolution has ushered in an era of low and stable natural gas prices, which is the new market reality that’s defining what’s happening in the country.”

The challenge with any alternative fuel, according to Clay, is that it has to compete with very entrenched and easily accessible fuel sources in the form of gasoline and diesel. The task of building a national infrastructure can be a daunting undertaking, which is why the AGA believes it is best to bring all potential investors “to the table.”

“It’s possible for natural gas utilities, where appropriate, to be part of the solution because our business models enable us to take longer-term viewpoints on our investment than a traditional non-regulated entity,” Clay explained.

Since the rules concerning the types of entities that can own and operate compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquid natural gas (LNG) refueling stations differ between states, natural gas utilities can sometimes be removed from the equation, which can create roadblocks when developing some form of national CNG/LNG fueling infrastructure.

“A national infrastructure is going to bubble up from a lot of local investment. There is not going to be a big, grand plan that is composed by the federal government, nor should there be,” Clay said. “But, what we can create, through regulatory policy, is the right environment to make it easy for investors to build those stations.”

These stations, which, as of press time, total approximately 709 CNG and 54 LNG  in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Alternative Fueling Station Locator, will see their numbers increase according to industry insiders, including Bill Zobel, vice president of market development and strategy for Trillium CNG, a provider of CNG fueling services. Citing figures from Navigant, Zobel sees CNG stations growing at a pace of about 150 to 400 stations per year up to 2020, with public access stations outpacing private stations by about 2:1.

“Most new CNG infrastructure developers are concentrating on high-capacity stations to serve the heavy-duty, over-the- road truck market,” Zobel explained, adding that an increase in Class 6-8 natural gas truck sales is predicted to be around 10 percent of the market by 2020. “Today’s share is about 3 percent, so, if the market grows about 1-1.5 percent per year between now and 2020, we’ll be there.”

Technology could also assist in the implementation of natural gas infrastructure. Lighter and larger on-board CNG tank packages are becoming available, with a considerable amount of innovation being made in this area over the last two years, according to Zobel.

“Just take a look at some of the early storage pack designs and compare. Each revision has resulted in better overall performance and improved lifecycle costs,” Zobel said.

There are also advances being made in terms of home refueling, an option that Clay called “promising.”

“There is very interesting work is supported by the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the U.S. DOE, which is dedicated to trying to develop a reliable, but low-cost, home refueling appliance for natural gas vehicles,” Clay said. “The vision is that in just the same way plug-in hybrid owner scan pull into their garages and plug in their cars, natural gas vehicle owners would be able to pull into their garages and hook up the natural gas vehicle to this appliance, and refuel off the same line that is providing gas to the stove or water heater.”

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