A prognosis of T. Boone Picken’s LNG vehicle future

I stumbled across this piece by Alan Krupnick this morning while browsing Real Clear Energy (one of my stops along my daily morning news adventure). Essentially, he offers us an evaluation of the state of play for T. Boone Picken’s vision of a LNG vehicle future. The prognosis, by Krupnick’s account, is still to uncertain to call, but I think we can make something of it.

Liquid Natural Gas is cheaper than gasoline or diesel because of its newly accessible abundance via hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, but it also has drawbacks. The vehicles themselves are more expensive than gasoline or hybrid alternatives (e.g. – Honda’s new LNG Civic as compared to its gasoline and hybrid counterparts) so the payback point takes longer to reach through savings on fuel costs alone. Of course there are subsidy programs that could bring down the cost, but they expired in 2010, and the prospect of getting Congress to agree on much of anything is, well…bleak, let’s say.

LNG vehicles also have significantly shorter range than gasoline or hybrid alternatives — and that’s before mentioning that LNG fuel tanks can take up to 50% more space than gasoline tanks or hybrid batteries, and even with severely reduced cargo or passenger space they still have shorter ranges (LNG: 218 miles per tank v. Gas: 383 mpt v. Hybrid: 504 mpt [looking again at different models of the Civic]). So, given the space issue, it may make more sense to focus on using LNG in large trucks, vans, and buses. But forecasts of the costs of maintenance are unclear, so fleets of LNG vehicles will have to struggle with uncertainty on that front for some time.

Finally, there is the question of infrastructure for LNG vehicles, which Krupnick frames as a ‘chicken or the egg’ conundrum. Infrastructure developers want there to be plenty of LNG vehicles on the road before taking on big projects, but consumers want infrastructure to be in place before they’ll be willing to take the risk of buying a non-gasoline or non-hybrid vehicle. Perhaps this gap can be bridged through commercial cooperation, where prospective LNG truck fleet purchasers coordinate with infrastructure developers to start building refueling stations in strategic locations along pre-established routes. Maybe if LNG starts showing up at Love’s or Buc-ee’s it’ll start making more sense for people to make the change (the same applies for electric vehicle plug-in stations, or even hydrogen powered vehicles), but until that happens most will probably see it as too risky, especially considering the reduced range of LNG vehicles.

Of course, there are still plenty of concerns worth raising about how we get our natural gas these days (fracking), the actual economic ripples of the industry, and the climate change/air pollution impacts of carbon dioxide and methane emissions associated with natural gas production. But T. Boone Pickens is convinced that LNG should be the future of transportation and Krupnick nods toward optimism, despite citing “uncertainties” about the environmental dimensions of such a transition.

So ask yourself — what is the real issue at hand? Cheap energy? Energy security? Environmental stewardship? Climate change mitigation? Energy independence? Economic growth?

At its core this represents one of the latest technological stabs at perpetuating our energy intensive standard of living while attempting to accommodate other competing values — but for all that it’s worth, we’re still talking about a short-term fix. And it’s one with many uncertainties surrounding it. Switching from oil to natural gas, at best, is like a first stitch in mending a deep wound. It may stop the bleeding a little, but we’re still lost in the woods if sustainable energy is our goal. Natural gas is, in many ways, desireable, questionable, risky, and perhaps inevitable (though not in some cases re: Longmont, Boulder, Yellow Springs, Broadview Heights, Meyers Lake, Cincinnati & the State of Ohio), so if we are going to use it, we ought to use it as best we can to pave the way for or to buy us time until sustainable, renewable energy technologies become competitive. In the meantime, I would still recommend going the Hybrid route or carpooling if you must drive — and even further, consider alternatives to personal automobiles like walking, biking, or public transit. Of course this isn’t always feasible, practical, or compatible with our established ways of life (especially living in places like North Central Texas) but small steps eventually traverse the world. We must, in this case and many others, take Ghandi’s advice and be the change we wish to see.

Cheers,

JM Kincaid

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