Engineering News

NGVAmerica's Kolodziej: Bridging the Hydrogen Gap
August 17, 2009

For much of the past decade, numerous government officials, environmentalists, and others regularly touted hydrogen as the fuel of choice for powering tomorrow's automobiles. Although hydrogen is nature's most abundant element and burns cleanly, the prospect of producing and distributing hydrogen fuel on a widespread basis economically may be decades away. Recognizing the formidable economic and technological challenges that linger with hydrogen, the U.S. Energy Department earlier this year cut funding for hydrogen-related vehicle projects by approximately 60%.

Meanwhile, the proverbial stock is rising for another alternative fuel that is readily available nationwide albeit not at most retail outlets. Natural gas, widely produced domestically and transported and distributed through well-developed infrastructure, is viewed by many as a key to making the U.S. more energy independent. Moreover, it is often referred to as a "bridge fuel" that could meet supply and environmental demands until hydrogen becomes a practical alternative fuel. In fact, natural gas is the leading feedstock for hydrogen production in the U.S.

"Are we a bridge to something? Probably," said Richard Kolodziej, President of NGVAmerica. "Fortunately, there's enough natural gas in the country so that we can keep building and extending that bridge for as long as necessary."

NGVAmerica is a Washington, D.C.-based trade association that advocates expanding the American market for natural gas- and biomethane-powered vehicles. The organization boasts a membership of more than 100 natural gas companies, equipment manufacturers and service providers, environmental groups, and government entities. Kolodziej, who held a leadership role with the American Gas Association before joining NGVAmerica, has a dual bachelor's degree in economics and math from Rutgers University and a master's in urban and regional planning from UCLA.

Room for Growth

Currently, natural gas powers a very small share of vehicles on America's roads. In liquefied form (LNG), it is primarily used in urban areas to power large, heavy fleet vehicles such as garbage trucks and city buses. In addition, government agencies and private companies often power their fleets of automobiles, vans, forklifts, and other light- and medium duty vehicles with compressed natural gas (CNG). Those limited uses notwithstanding, gasoline and diesel remain the predominant motor fuels in the U.S.

It is possible to retrofit passenger vehicles to run on natural gas, but doing so is often cost-prohibitive because to convert a single car may cost $10,000. Even with a kit installed, however, a motorist typically cannot buy CNG at his or her local gas station. "There are 180,000 gas stations in the U.S. and 1,200 natural gas stations," said Kolodziej. "We obviously can't be all things to all people tomorrow."

Hubs and Spokes

Because building a network of natural gas retail outlets will take time, NGVAmerica's members advocate establishing an initial network of fueling hubs in large urban areas where high-volume NG users will be concentrated. Kolodziej noted the much greater volumes of NG required in a concentrated urban area justify such an approach. He pointed out the average private motor vehicle will travel 12,000 miles per year. Assuming the vehicle gets 25 miles per gallon, it should require 480 gallons of fuel in a year. In contrast, he said that a typical Class-8 truck (a tractor trailer) may drive 120,000 miles per year; given a fuel economy of 6 mpg, the truck would be expected to burn 20,000 gallons of fuel during that period.

Under the scenario NGVAmerica envisions, "spokes" between NG fueling hubs would be established once high-volume users begin traveling back and forth between hub cities. NG infrastructure in the spoke cities would, in turn, provide NG for burgeoning markets in their respective regions. Retail outlets would gradually proliferate throughout the country following this hub-and-spoke approach. For instance, hub cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisico, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas could all be interconnected with fueling station “spokes” along their connecting interstate highways. "Get another hub, get another spoke, and so on," Kolodziej said.

NGVs in the USA

For such a vast rollout of retail outlets to succeed, eventually, the number of personal natural gas vehicles (NGVs) will need to greatly expand to complement the NG fleet vehicle market. Presently, only one production model passenger vehicle that runs on NG--the Honda Civic GX--is sold to the general public in the U.S. While the vehicle (which runs on CNG) is available to fleets throughout the country, it is only available for personal use in three states: California, New York, and Utah.

From the automakers' standpoint, mass-producing natural gas vehicles (NGVs) is far from uncharted territory. There are approximately 10 million NGVs on the road worldwide; roughly 150,000 of these vehicles are in the U.S. "Every major automaker sells natural gas-powered vehicles somewhere in the world," said Kolodziej. For instance, he pointed out that General Motors makes 18 models at various facilities in Europe, South America, and Asia. Fiat, which recently merged with Chrysler, sold 100,000 NGVs in Italy alone last year. Kolodziej would like to see additional U.S. automakers enter the NGV market; he is particularly intrigued by the Chrysler/Fiat union, which he speculates may precede GM and Ford in unveiling NGVs domestically.

Kolodziej also believes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could help to foster the growth of the American NGV market by streamlining the certification of NG conversion systems to federal certification requirements and in-use emissions standards. A piece of legislation that recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin would do just that.

"We've been working very hard to move this legislation along," Kolodziej said of H.R. 1622 sponsored by Rep. John Sullivan, R-Okla. In addition to effecting changes to EPA certification and emission regulations, the legislation would expand and extend the scope of U.S. Department of Energy NGV research, development, and demonstration activities. "What the automakers want to see is demand," said Kolodziej. "We have to accelerate the demand."

Over the past year, the federal government has acquired sizeable ownership stakes of two major automakers and has implemented a program subsidizing private citizens' purchases of new vehicles that meet certain criteria. Given this level of public-sector involvement in the U.S. auto industry, some may see H.R. 1622 as an attempt to wield even more governmental influence over the retail automobile market. Kolodziej prefers to see the bill's provisions as avenues to satisfying the public's demand for cleaner air, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and greater energy independence. "Things will happen at their own rate, but if you want to accelerate it [increase the adoption of NGVs], you have to change the economics," he said.

Kolodziej also sees the adoption of NGVs by more American drivers as a prime growth opportunity for the natural gas industry, whose shares of the residential and industrial utility market have fallen in recent years. He invites those in the pipeline and storage sectors – and anyone else with a stake in boosting demand for natural gas--to explore NGV market opportunities by contacting him by phone at 202/824-7366 or e-mail:

"The question to the NG industry is this, where is the growth in your market going to come from?" he concluded. "NGVs can and will play a much bigger role as a market for natural gas."

Source: Downstream Today

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