Just a year or two ago it appeared that the natural gas vehicle could begin competing with the conventional vehicle for consumers around the country. Natural gas was cheaper than gasoline, the fuel burns cleaner, and some of the infrastructure to make it a viable gasoline alternative was already being developed.
But car companies are now pushing electric and hydrogen vehicles far more than natural gas powered ones. So, what happened to natural gas vehicles, and do they have a future?
The trucking industry loves natural gas
There are companies growing natural gas fuel successfully. One business trying to do this is the trucking industry and Clean Energy Fuels (NASDAQ:CLNE), who builds fueling stations and other infrastructure, including the Natural Gas Highway, a network of fueling stations around the country. So far, the adoption is slow but it's picking up steam. The company recently said its customers ordered 70% more fuel in the first nine months of this year than a year ago.
Westport Innovations (NASDAQ:WPRT) is making the natural gas engine technology and components that drive this new trucking fleet and, again, progress is steady. Revenue was up 51% to $30.7 million last quarter and the company is working with Cummins, Volvo, Ford (NYSE:F), and others to expand vehicle offerings.
While there's some success in the trucking market, it hasn't turned into a lot of genuine interest from auto buyers, or even automakers for that matter. There are a number of challenges that natural gas autos face that electric or hydrogen vehicles don't.
No appeal to tree huggers
One of the challenges selling people on natural gas is that it doesn't appeal to your typical early-mover crowd. Hybrids in their early days appealed to the environmentally conscious type because they use fewer fossil fuels to power their cars. That same appeal powers electric-vehicle sales today; EVs can get energy via something like solar panels, thus eliminating all fossil fuel emissions. Someone with the disposable income available to buy an electric vehicle doesn't see the same benefit being offered by natural gas.
Infrastructure isn't widespread
The bigger challenge facing natural gas vehicles is that refueling stations aren't widespread across the country. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are only 632 compressed natural gas stations and just 42 liquefied natural gas stations in the U.S. That compares to 6,883 electric charging stations for public use.
Thousands more natural gas fueling stations and additional compressed or liquefied natural gas plants would be needed to make this a viable fuel source. From an infrastructure standpoint, that puts natural gas well behind electric when it comes to ease of building infrastructure for vehicles.
Cost savings can't save natural gas
I don't question that natural gas fuel costs less than gasoline, which is the biggest selling point for natural gas vehicles. That's the reason the trucking industry finds natural gas attractive and why Ford is trying to sell a natural gas F-150. But the infrastructure needed to make natural gas a viable option for the rest of us would cost billions of dollars.
When comparing the potential of natural gas with that of electric, the hurdles for EVs are far lower. At the end of the day, I don't think natural gas will catch on beyond the trucking fleets.
Fool contributor Travis Hoium has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Clean Energy Fuels, Ford, and Westport Innovations. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Westport Innovations. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.