Since we're becoming awash in natural gas these days, it's too bad Americans can't use more of it to fuel our automobiles. But that situation is changing relatively quickly.
By year-end, reports Automotive News, a handful of heavy-duty pickup trucks will join the Honda Civic as the only compressed-natural-gas (CNG) vehicles being sold by U.S. dealers to retail buyers. The Ram 2500, Chevrolet Silverado 2500 and GMC Sierra 2500 each will be available with dual-mode engines that switch between natural gas and gasoline depending on conditions.
They're priced much higher than conventionally powered models, as you might expect. The Silverado CNG version will carry a sticker price of more than $43,000, or about $11,000 more than a base Silverado, Auto News reports.
Expect the move to CNG-powered vehicles to accelerate on a retail basis as the effects of the natural-gas glut continue to wash over energy markets and as American consumers continue to get more comfortable with the notion.
As of 2011, there were more than 123,000 CNG-powered heavy-duty trucks, vocational vehicles, buses and vans, cars and pick-up trucks in the U.S., according to David Demers, CEO for a natural-gas engine company who recently wrote for Forbes on CNGs. The vast majority of those are in business fleets where operators are looking for the massive cost savings that can be provided by CNG.
The big question now, of course, is whether the American auto and energy-distribution industries could accommodate a meaningful expansion of consumer interest in natural-gas vehicles. The manufacturing procedures are similar for CNG power and gasoline powerplants, and the infrastructure challenge is manageable.
"The time for natural-gas vehicles is now," wrote Demers, head of Canada's Westport Innovations, which is based in Vancouver, B.C. "The opportunities to source natural gas, buy vehicles, refuel and drive [natural-gas vehicles] are tremenous. They're here, and the demand is going to keep growing."
The demand may be growing, but will it really move the needle and become a differentiator for car-buyers?