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Electric vs. Natural Gas Vehicles

Join The Motley Fool's Austin Smith for a chat with Sandeep Munshi, director of technology and development at Westport Innovations. Based in Vancouver and with facilities in eight other countries, Westport is the industry leader in natural gas engines and vehicles.

Light-duty electric vehicles are great in cities, but Sandeep discusses the greater versatility of natural gas -- suitable for both light and heavier vehicles -- as well as the economic differences between the two technologies.

To watch the full interview, click here.

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Austin Smith: From a pure engine performance aspect, it would look to be that something like an electric engine would have many of the same benefits as a natural gas engine; say, high torque on demand, low cost of operation.

I'm wondering how you think about that and maybe a company like Tesla, and whether or not their offerings are a threat to natural gas engines, or where they would stand in relation to the products that you guys are offering.

Sandeep Munshi: Interesting question. Tesla, the whole story with electric vehicles or electric cars, it's a new technology. It's an emerging area of technology.

Yes, as you mentioned, electric cars do have some performance and efficiency benefits, but if you look at the overall scheme of things that comparison only goes so far because electric vehicles currently -- and hopefully in the near future -- are limited to urban transport, passenger cars, more light-duty vehicles.

Whereas, when we talk about natural gas we're talking from very small engines, light-duty passenger cars, to commercial vehicles, trucks and very large marine, locomotive engines, off-road, industrial engines, so the spectrum is very large when it comes to natural gas engines.

Electric vehicles are an application that's limited, as I say, to urban markets. That's one difference.

The other difference is, cost-wise, EVs -- or electric vehicles -- are significantly more expensive. Even though they are more efficient, what I read in the media the payback period could be much longer to recover the initial cost of the electric vehicle that you pay for.

These are some of the differences between, say, a natural gas vehicle and an electric vehicle.

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  • Report this Comment On August 20, 2013, at 12:20 PM, eric0007 wrote:

    I agree that there is not that much crossover between natural gas and electric vehicles. I disagree on the cost front though, electric vehicles have come down significantly is cost, and look to drop in price more in the future. Many electric cars are already competitive with gasoline powered cars, and any natural gas powered cars. Electric vehicles offer an environmental benefit over natural gas vehicles, and a safety benefit over dealing with natural gas. The biggest reason why electric vehicles will probably win this fight is electric cars already have the existing infrastructure to power them, where natural gas and hydrogen don't. Most people who own electric cars end up charging them at home. To build out the natural gas or hydrogen infrastructure will cost billions and billions, whereas if you want to build more charging stations you're talking only thousand or hundreds of dollars to install those charging points.

  • Report this Comment On August 20, 2013, at 4:10 PM, utilitybug wrote:

    Eric0007, the cost of electric cars is still much much higher than gasoline and CNG cars. Do not forget that someone pays for those federal and state rebates and tax credits - ALL OF US. So if everyone switches to subsidized version, guess what will happen to either subsidy or the tax base.

    Electric cars still have the distance limitation sub par to gasoline and CNG cars, except a very few and very expensive models currently in very limited supply and production. One thing both CNG and electric cars would benefit from to gain better acceptance is ability to get quick fill up by road assistance that would last 10-20 miles. Environmental benefit of electric cars is very questionable to me, as I have not seen studies comparing rare earths extraction and processing to the natural gas extraction or oil extraction and refinement. I know that NG is less energy demanding than gasoline, but NG vs electric? It's much more complex as car insides are very different. You are correctly point out that people charge their electric cars at home - what about those living in multi-family? Parking on the street? Where is their plug-in options?

    Next point - charge time. Gasoline and CNG - about 10 minutes. Electric? Not that great.

    Infrastructure - there is very limited infrastructure for both CNG and electric. How many parking places have electric hook up accessible from every stall? You are wrong if you think NG stations are non- existent or too expensive - look up high pressure NG lines and you will see that infrastructure is a matter of incentive, not availability.

    1 other thing - what is your prognosis in case of widespread electrical outage due to weather (have been common lately in many places)? Having eggs in one basket is asking for trouble. Electric has its use, same as CNG - both are very good option for urban commute but require some sort of backup due to infrastructure shortcomings.

    1 thing electric is #1 in is pollution control. The car itself is clean. The production of pollutants is transferred to manufacturing/power plants, where it is much easier to capture/filter. Right now starting a car in the garage result in filling it with toxic fumes and carcinogens. Every major street is health hazard. It does not have to be. Our cities can be much cleaner if not for 100,000s of polluting engines, which we rely on individuals to maintain. But it will require shift in mentality - a truly paramount task.

  • Report this Comment On August 20, 2013, at 4:34 PM, speculawyer wrote:

    Electric is better for commuter vehicles because it is cheap and easy to install a home charger. A home CNG system is expensive, uses electricity, is noisy, and requires annual maintenance. Thus for light-duty cars that people drive, it is much easier to do electric.

  • Report this Comment On August 20, 2013, at 4:36 PM, icehercdriver wrote:

    Aren't most EVs actually natural gas powered since they get their charge from natural gas run electrical generation plants?

  • Report this Comment On August 20, 2013, at 11:38 PM, mountain8 wrote:

    Does anyone have reference to any operational costs, ie: what is the cost per tank of juice. How much does it cost per comparable distances? Is the cost of producing and delivering the electrical power to "power up" an electric car more or less than the cost of filling up on gas. Say 300 miles in each car. Gas is about $50. Cost of electricity???

  • Report this Comment On August 21, 2013, at 3:05 PM, utilitybug wrote:

    mountain8 - good question but the answer will be "it depends". Note that electricity prices are different and depending on tier you may pay as little as little as 7 cents /kWt and up to 30 cents / kWt. Assuming charging takes about 5 kWt and lasts 8 hours we have 40 kWtHrs for 200 miles, so may be 60 for 300 miles, which will cost anywhere in 5 - 20 dollars range plus applicable taxes and surcharges utility bills are loaded with. I do recall recall some estimates saying it costs $.02 / mile, so for 300 miles it would be about $6. I know some utilities have programs that offer discount pricing for EV owners, but I do not know if that was part of 0.02 / mile estimate.

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