Issues Related to the Transition to Natural Gas Utilization in Pennsylvania Transportation

Posted: July 23, 2012

A Natural Gas Utilization workshop was held in State College in June 2011. The workshop focused on three areas where expanded gas use opportunities exist: industrial, power generation, and transportation and fuels. This is the last part in the series, looking at issues when looking at natural gas utilization for transportation.

Proposals have been made in turning the Pennsylvania Turnpike into a clean natural gas corridor by placing compressed natural gas (CNG) dispensers at fueling stations on the turnpike.  This idea seems attractive at first look as natural gas currently sells for about one-fourth of the price of gasoline.  Using natural gas to power vehicles also seems to promise reductions in tailpipe emissions and pollution.  In addition, every vehicle that runs on natural gas reduces America's dependence on foreign petroleum sources that have the potential to disrupt the economy by raising prices or restricting access to petroleum fuels. 

There are other issues to consider, however.  Cost is a significant barrier to making this proposition come true.  The limited CNG refueling infrastructure will require a significant up-front expenditure to install pumps along the turnpike.  Also, while CNG powered vehicles are more efficient than gasoline fueled vehicles, diesel powered vehicles are more efficient than CNG powered.

Changes can be made to natural gas to make it as efficient as diesel.  Hydrogen enriched natural gas (HCNG) boosts efficiency, and the dual-fuel mixture of diesel to start the combustion and natural gas to provide most of the power is also a promising technology.  The issue is how quickly these types of technology come to market, and how soon there is a fueling infrastructure to encourage large scale transition from gasoline to natural gas fuel.  It is not as simple a question.  Natural gas is cheaper than gasoline.  There is an abundant supply of natural gas.  But there is also competition from other technologies.  Hybrid and battery powered vehicles are already being mass produced.  There is concern about unburned methane emissions at the tailpipe and the possible effect on the environment.  Natural gas as the primary transportation fuel shows much promise but there is still work to be done before it becomes the standard for vehicle power.

To read the entire Transportation and Fuels Working Group, please click here.