If you share my opinion after being bathed in the steady stream of news about solar panel producer Solyndra, its bankruptcy, and its questionable federal loan (with others apparently being teed up for other companies), you may have discovered periodic eruptions of smoke emerging from your ears. I suggest we turn our attention to a far more palatable subject: the increasing supply, availability, and use of natural gas as a transportation fuel.
You know all about the still relatively new and improved techniques involving horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) that have gas emerging from underground at prodigious rates. Indeed, according to the International Energy Agency, assuming that environmental concerns about fracking can be overcome, the use of natural gas may increase by more than 50% by 2035.
At the same time, efforts to expand the use of natural gas to power trucks and cars in North America are generally emanating from the private sector, rather than from government (taxpayers') largesse, as was the case with Solyndra. For instance, as my Foolish colleague Adam Crawford told you not long ago, Chesapeake Energy
Chesapeake's bold plan
Under Chesapeake's $1 billion plan, which will be paid for by up to 2% of its drilling budget, the first funding recipient is Clean Energy Fuels
Just last week, Royal Dutch Shell
Following the Shell-Westport announcement, concerns have bubbled forth from investors and other observers about the ability of Clean Energy Fuels to compete with the giant oil company and its new partner. From my perspective, Clean Energy Fuels stands to benefit from Shell's entry into the market. Indeed, the group hardly is encumbered by a surfeit of stations; Shell's position as a member of Big Oil stands to lend credence to natural gas's use as a transportation fuel.
Trailing Europe badly
For the sake of comparison, the U.S. Energy Department tells us that, at the beginning of summer, there were 889 compressed natural gas (CNG) stations in the U.S., along with 44 LNG stations, about 2,400 E85 (an ethanol-gasoline blend) stations, and approximately 2,100 electric-vehicle charging stations. At the same time, there were about 125,000 conventional gasoline stations. Furthermore, about 13 CNG vehicles will be sold in Europe this year for each one purchased in the U.S.
Its new Shell arrangement isn't the only partnership for Westport. In July, the company inked an agreement with General Motors
For the big trucks
Westport also has entered a venture with Indiana-based Cummins
In addition to the bevy of municipalities that you'd expect to have moved into the arena of natural-gas-powered buses, a number of major corporations have begun to grace their truck fleets with increasing numbers of natural gas vehicles. For instance, AT&T
I'm not ignoring the supply side. There is progress in fracking, where virtually all of the environmental concerns lie. You may have noticed a pair of commercials by ExxonMobil. In one, a geologist discusses the environmental aspects of fracking. Hopefully both the gas producers and the environmentalists will recognize the degree to which the expanding use of natural gas is contingent upon candor, cooperation, and common sense in both camps.
Foolish bottom line
Exercising candor of my own, I have little doubt that, were we to slip into a Rip Van Winkle-type slumber, we'd awaken to discover a world with transport largely dependent upon liquefied and compressed natural gas. On that basis, I'll remain especially observant of Westport Innovations, given its multiple meaningful partnerships. I hope my Foolish friends will join me in adding the company to their customized Motley Fool watchlists by clicking here.