Friday, March 9, 2012

Gasoline Replacement at $2 per gallon?

    What if gasoline could be replaced with something that cost under $2 per gallon-equivalent (that is, for the same amount of energy contained in a gallon of gasoline)?  There would be an energy revolution, right?
    Maybe or maybe not.
    The fact of the matter is that there is such a replacement out there, and its available in practically unlimited quantities, but most of the country doesn't care and hasn't noticed.  
    There seemed to be a shortage of natural gas just six years ago, like when I bought a house in Morgantown WV and decided not to use natural gas heat because the prices seemed likely to go over $10 per thousand cubic feet.  Now, it's under $3.  The reason is that industry has developed new technologies for drilling and recovering gas from shale formations such as the Barnett shale in Texas, the Marcellus in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, the Utica formation in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and probably more to be found.
    Natural gas is cleaner than oil or coal, and results in less carbon dioxide when it is burned than either of those two fuels.  People are now saying that the Marcellus formation holds as much energy as the oil formations in Saudi Arabia.
    Moreover, it is very realistic to use natural gas to power automobiles.
    You can go out and buy a compressed natural gas (CNG) powered car from Honda.  A natural gas Honda Civic stickers for about $26,000, and you can buy natural gas for it at filling stations around the country (there are not a lot of natural gas filling stations, but they do exist in most metropolitain areas). Or you can buy a refueling kit from Honda that will allow you to refill in your garage.  I don't really need a car right now, because in 2009 President Obama gave my $4000 to trade in my old Chrysler minivan with 200,000 miles on it, so that I could buy a Jeep Patriot.  But when I do get around to buying a new car, I'm very likely going to get one that runs on compressed natural gas. 

 2012 Natural Gas Fueled Honda Civic.

    You  can also buy CNG fleet vehicles from General Motors, and several companies supply buses that run on natural gas (one of the best applications, because fueling stations are guaranteed to be available).  You can also legally convert many cars to CNG. More cars are certainly coming.  

    You  would think that this would cause Americans to be ecstatic about finding a new source of plentiful and abundant energy, and some are.   Others are not so sure however.  Many of my friends, for a variety of political, philosophical and environmental reasons, hope for declining fossil fuel energy use across the board, and so they are disappointed to see the American economy use natural gas to fuel its recovery. 
    There are concerns anytime you drill holes into the ground, but if you go to Texas or Oklahoma, it's very normal to see oil drilling rigs in the middle of cities and farms.  This can be coped with.   
    Another reason for the lack of enthusiasm is that Americans have been fed so much bullshit about energy, that many of us have come to enjoy the taste.  Bush tried to sell us on hydrogen fuel cell cars.  This is very interesting, because you make hydrogen by reforming natural gas and then purifying it so that it costs 10 times more than gasoline.  Then you use converted Space Shuttle fuel cells in an economy car that costs about $100,000.  What a great idea!       
      Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has tried to kill that horrible idea since he took office, but the supposedly frugal budget conservative Republicans won't give it up.  And California is still building hydrogen filling stations for all of the millions of fuel cell cars that they think will soon be built.  They plan to make hydrogen via water electrolysis, using electricity from the nuclear reactors that they built on earthquake faults.  Well they must know what they are doing, right?  Otherwise they would be wasting millions and millions of dollars of taxpayer money, and that couldn't happen, could it?

Rich people everywhere rejoice at the opportunity to spend ten times more for fuel than the average person spends. Californians are forced to support them generously with their tax dollars. 

     Then there is ethanol.  This is not totally crazy, but if America ever gets serious about replacing gasoline with ethanol, we will have to defoliate the entire country to make ethanol.  Ethanol is a poor fuel, with only about half the energy content of gasoline.  In order to make it pay, you have to have pure alcohol for about half the price of gasoline.  So in other words if gasoline costs about $4 bucks, alcohol has got to be around $2 per gallon just to break even. All I know is that they've been making whiskey for a long time, and if it was going to really be that cheap Jack Daniels would have gotten there by now.  

If politicians think they can make ethanol at $2 per gallon, they were probably drinking this stuff when they came up with that idea.  

    So much for Republican brainstorms.  The Democrats are not much better.  They are countering with The Great Light Hope, solar energy (only about five to ten times as expensive as conventional power except during daylight hours in Arizona, in which case it may only be double) and windmills (ditto--far too expensive to compete with natural gas to make electricity, never mind produce transportation fuel).   They also like biofuels, which makes for odd bedfellows since it is one of the few alternatives that Republicans and Democrats both like.  But they are both wrong. 

   These far-out costly "Green" technologies can make it for certain niches, but they never make significant market share in the energy market, and the net result is that we wind up being increasingly dependent on people that are even crazier than we are:  namely OPEC nations like Iraq, Iran, Venezuela and others.  What a great idea that is!   But that is where conventional wisdom is trying to take us.   

    At the same time there has been sharp criticism of organizations like the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which is chartered to do research on fossil fuels and other technologies that might actually work. In my view it is the finest of the Department of Energy Laboratories, despite the political efforts to have America focus its efforts on very tenuous concepts.

    The fact of the matter is that NETL developed technology for  compressed natural gas powered automobiles years ago.  CNG is cleaner than gasoline and is compatible with conventional piston engines, with comparatively minor modifications to the fueling system.  This technology exists, and Honda has brought it to the US in the form of a passenger car.  You can also buy fleet vehicles from GM, and Ford and Chrysler are said to be considering product launches as well (hurry up, guys). 

     Both the Republicans and Democrats are foolishly hoping that their aged and foolish pet projects are going to miraculously achieve a breakthrough, while RIGHT NOW YOU CAN BUY A CAR THAT RUNS ON FUEL THAT IS CHEAPER THAN GASOLINE PER MILE DRIVEN.  This time, it is not a joke, it is a real revolution that is happening under our noses.  Yet many people are trying to prevent it because it doesn't agree with their antiquated and preconceived notions about energy.   But I think this is the real deal and I'm thankful that America may actually have a chance to cut its dependence on foreign energy sources and power its own REAL economy with REAL fuel.  

 The Department of Energy says that Natural Gas cost the equivalent of $1.85 per gallon of gasoline last year.  You can get Americans to drill for you, or you can trust those nice people in Iran and Iraq to provide for your fuel needs.  Which is it going to be, America?   

Additional reading:


3.  A list of cars that can be converted to CNG is contained here: .


  1. Of course, from city to city, the CNG pump prices vary radically. For most cities in the Southwest, CNG GGE equivalent prices are still only about $1 cheaper than regular gasoline - and you have to be lucky enough to drive out of your way to get to that station, and carry the extra maintenance costs on your tank (so, apart from being a good citizen, most consumers won't reap a financial benefit out here). Sure gasoline prices are going up this summer, but the CNG prices are, too....

  2. I believe that natural gas will be abundant and overall will continue to be sold at a very low price compared to what we have been accustomed to. I'm an engineer, and not a price speculator, but I think that the supply of natural gas is going to increase for the next several years, and probably diverge from petroleum price.