When we think of transportation we generally associate most transportation modes with dirty smelly emissions from petroleum fuels. With few exceptions almost everyone has experienced a dirty diesel truck or a car that is blowing oil or gas fumes out of the tailpipe. They are hard to miss with their black smoke or noxious odors. Technology has done wonders to compensate for the worst offenders as long as routine maintenance is followed by vehicle owners but make no mistake, petroleum fuels are still harmful, even if they are not visible or overtly dominant in the air we breathe.
Whether you believe in the "end of oil" or the "climate change" theories or not, there is more than sufficient reason to relieve our dependence on petroleum fuel. We need to move towards cleaner burning energy sources that also create energy independence. These solutions should be practical economically as well as viable for the intended application. Too often, well intentioned people propose or support ideas that fail to consider the economic impact or practicality of the proposed solution.
We have all heard the promise of electric, fuel cell, hydrogen, propane, and bio fuels and each may have potential in some application or at some time in the future but in reality they all have serious challenges or limitations when used in transportation.
Natural Gas is a fuel that is domestic, abundant, and renewable, which promotes energy security and economic stability. Natural gas is also cleaner burning and safer than the fuels we currently use in transportation.
So, why then, has the public been kept in the dark in relation to other "high profile" alternatives? It's all about politics and economic investment. The last two presidential administrations have economically sponsored alternatives that favor electric propulsion over the internal combustion engine. Policy advisors in these administrations have striven to achieve the "zero emissions" vehicle to pacify, if not satisfy those who support the previously mentioned theories on oil reserves and climate impacts. Natural gas does not achieve "zero emissions". But in reality when using a "cradle to grave" or "well to wheel" analysis, there may be no such thing as a true "zero emissions" vehicle. Even if electric vehicles could produce zero emissions (cradle to grave), does the extraordinary investment required, and the lost benefits of using natural gas now, justify the policy decisions that have deterred acceptance and usage of market-ready natural gas vehicles? One must also consider the limited applicability of electric vehicles in our overall transportation sector.
With natural gas vehicles we could be reducing harmful emissions between 60- 95% and the average family could be reducing its' transportation fuel budget by at least 33% allowing more spendable income to help stimulate a weak economy and/or invest in other energy saving areas.
Finally, Natural gas is renewable! Any source of methane, and there are many, is a potential source of natural gas. The most common sources are landfills and waste water treatment facilities which could also be revenue generation streams for municipalities in the production of bio methane. I’ll address the practical aspects of using these sites in a future blog.
This does not suggest that we should transfer our dependence from oil to natural gas, only that we should be supporting an alternative solution that is available for wide scale use, can provide significant environmental and economic benefits, and establish a path for energy independence and security for the future. In a future blog, I’ll outline the much easier process to ramp up for natural gas transportation infrastructure rather than electric.
Joseph Darling is the Chief Operating Officer of Darling Transportation Energy Solutions. He has advised governors and legislators on transportation energy and emissions policy for over 20 years. His business is in the process of developing natural gas vehicles for fleet operators in upstate NY. He can be reached via the Member email.