By Mike Allen
Self-made billionaire and self-proclaimed energy guru T. Boone Pickens has been all over the media and the Web this summer, with his energy evangelism gaining added traction as we count down the last 50 days to the election. Pickens wants to reduce our dependence on foreign energy as rapidly as possible, and he's willing to put his money where his mouth is.
As part of his viral video-powered campaign, then, Pickens wants to put $160 million behind his case for natural gas-powered vehicles. Central to that plan is the development of the so-called Standard Taxi (pictured above), which looks sort of like a London taxi made from Lego blocks. I can only speculate as to why it's so unconscionably ugly.
That being said, I happen to agree 100-percent with Pickens' assertion that converting a healthy proportion of the U.S. fleet to run on compressed natural gas (CNG) would provide tremendous medium-range solutions to our energy issues—no question about it. We have plenty of NG reserves, especially right offshore and in the Arctic. The infrastructure to carry it around the country is mature. There are many advantages to running a car or truck on CNG, especially for fleets that always return to a central location for refueling during the day or overnight. It's a clean-burning fuel, and a dedicated CNG vehicle can have almost the same range as a gas or diesel-powered one.
But, yo, T. Boone! Wake up and smell the coffee. There's little need to spend major amounts of money to develop an all-new CNG vehicle, because there are plenty to be had already. Everything from city buses to fork lifts to passenger cars are available with CNG drivetrains right now. Honda sells the Civic GX, with a 170-mile range. Not only that, but there are many places that will convert your vehicle to run on CNG in addition to leaving the conventional fuel injection intact, so you can switch back and forth at will. You can even buy kits that let you do this yourself. Live too far from a CNG station? Buy Phill, a CNG compressor that hooks up to the city natural gas line already running your stove, furnace and water heater, then refuel yourself at home.
Of course, there are still only 1000-or-so publicly accessible CNG stations in the country. Refueling a vehicle with a 3600-psi tank full of explosive methane might seem daunting, but rational consideration leads to the conclusion that it's actually safer than gasoline. Think about it: Gasoline will pool under a damaged vehicle and run along the surface, spreading a fire. A partially filled tank can explode if damaged, and gasoline vapors will pool in low areas and explode. Gasoline has a very wide explosive range, meaning it will explode over a very wide range of mixture ratios with air.
Natural gas, on the other hand, is lighter than air and will quickly dissipate by itself if it's vented. It won't pool, and it has a very narrow explosive range by comparison. If they invented gasoline today, frankly, they'd probably say it was too dangerous and never bring it to market.
Rhetoric aside, CNG has enormous potential, and unlike hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles or electrics or PHEVs, it's one with very few engineering hurdles to jump.