Natural gas is becoming a more widely used fuel for generating electricity, but it has also made strides as a transportation fuel over the past decade. Part of natural gas' appeal in transportation hinges on the fact that the fuel burns cleanly – an important consideration in an era of increasingly strict air quality regulations. According to a key proponent of expanding the use of natural gas in U.S. land-based transportation, the environmental profile of natural gas vehicles (NGVs) is about to take on another dimension.

"One story you will be hearing more about is the combination of the new 'Near-Zero' low-NOx (nitrogen oxides) natural gas engines and renewable natural gas (RNG)," Matthew Godlewski, president of the Washington, D.C.-based NGVAmerica, told DownstreamToday. "These engines are 90 percent cleaner than the current standard for NOx emissions. RNG comes from waste stream sources such as landfill gas, dairy waste, wastewater treatment plants. It reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by more than 80 percent."

The combination of Near-Zero NGV engine technology and RNG "provides the single-best opportunity for the U.S to achieve immediate and substantial NOx and GHG emission reductions in the on-road heavy-duty transportation sectors," pointed out Godlewski. "This is a powerful combination that will lead our industry's growth."

NGVs still represent a small segment of all vehicles on the road. NGVAmerica reports that there are more than 160,000 NGVs in the United States; the worldwide figure is approximately 15.2 million, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center. By comparison, the estimated total vehicle counts both in the U.S. and globally are much higher. Nevertheless, Godlewski contends that environmental considerations will be critical in helping NGVs to achieve greater market penetration. Read on for his insights.

DownstreamToday: It's been several years since the onset of the shale revolution, which has brought about calls to promote the use of CNG and LNG as alternatives to gasoline and diesel. What do you see as the key accomplishments of your industry in terms of promoting NGVs and the necessary infrastructure several years on?

Matthew Godlewski: The number of natural gas vehicles in the U.S. has grown to over 160,000.  NGVs are the only alternative fuel with engines and vehicles available today for a variety of applications – waste and recycling, transit, long- and short-haul trucking, fleet delivery vehicles and consumer cars and trucks.  We have witnessed an average annual growth in CNG stations of 11 percent each year since 2008 and the number of LNG stations has grown by over 300 percent.  The NGV industry has accomplished a lot over the past 10 years in providing great products and the necessary infrastructure.

DownstreamToday: What factors have contributed to the rollout of NGVs and related infrastructure?

Godlewski: It's pretty simple – customers.  Fleets of all sizes have realized the benefits of using more natural gas in transportation.  They understand that America has decades of affordable reserves of natural gas that will keep prices low into the future. Maintenance costs are also lower with NGVs given their simple after-treatment systems.  And there is a great emissions story associated with NGVs – lower GHG, significantly less particulate matter and quieter engines. 

DownstreamToday: Which major challenges/growth opportunities remain?

Godlewski: We have a long way to go in getting even more NGVs on the road, but we also have some new opportunities on the horizon.  The Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal resulted in a $2.7 billion Environmental Mitigation Trust to fund clean transportation projects aimed at reducing nitrogen oxide (NOx) in every state.  Fleets will have an opportunity to retire older vehicles and apply for funds from the Trust to help defray the costs of newer equipment.  Natural gas vehicles offer engines with the lowest NOx emissions of any transportation fuel.  I see a significant portion of the Trust going to fund projects that put more NGVs on the road. 

DownstreamToday: Oil prices, and the prices of refined products such as gasoline and diesel, have been low for the past two-plus years. Because conventional fuels have become a relative bargain for motorists and fleet owners, how do you sell consumers on the value of switching to vehicles powered by CNG or LNG?

Godlewski: Savvy fleets understand the volatility associated with world oil prices and the stability of using domestic natural gas.  Larger fleets are diversifying their transportation fuels.  Yet, even on a head-to-head comparison today, natural gas is still 50 to 75 cents cheaper than diesel on average.

DownstreamToday: CNG and LNG are used as fuels in other parts of the world. Outside the U.S., what are some of the countries to watch and how can their experiences with NGVs influence the rollout here?

Godlewski: I was just up in Ottawa and the Canadian NGV market is getting ready to ramp up.  The federal government and Province of Ontario are both exploring some significant incentives to put more heavy-duty natural gas trucks on the road.  This is a good thing for the U.S. market as we think about the benefits of using more natural gas across North America.