The United States is undergoing a domestic natural gas boom unlike anything seen in more than a generation. Passing Russia in 2012, the U.S. is the largest producer of natural gas in the world, and there is strong evidence that domestic reserves can support that production for as long as a century.
The domestic supply is so large that Cheniere Energy's LNG export facility in Louisiana, the first of its kind in the country to support massive exports of natural gas, will begin sending cheap American natural gas to overseas markets in less than one year. Less than a decade ago, almost nobody in the energy business would have imagined this. The U.S. was importing more than two-thirds of its oil, and most natural gas producers were fearing domestic supplies would run out within a few decades.
Natural gas has remained an inexpensive fuel versus diesel and gasoline, and a large number of operators of commercial bus, taxi, and trash truck fleets have migrated to this cleaner burning alternative over the past several years. However, natural gas cars are almost as scarce today as they were a decade ago. Honda Motor Co (NYSE:HMC) introduced the Civic CNG in 1998, and 16 years later it's still the only factory-built natural gas car sold in the United States. Sure, Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F), Chrysler's Ram, and General Motors (NYSE:GM) offer various natural gas-powered pickup trucks and vans, targeted at fleets and as work vehicles, for a number of years, but besides the Civic, consumers looking for an economical daily driver have been left out of the mix. The result?
Of the more than 12 million natural gas cars on the planet, less than 300,000 are in North America. The vast majority of them are either commercial or government vehicles, heavy-duty trucks, or gasoline-powered that have been converted to CNG. So far, that doesn't look like it's going to change anytime soon.
First new entry in 16 years, but more of the same compromises
General Motors has announced that the 2015 Chevy Impala will be available in a bi-fuel configuration, with a CNG tank that holds eight GGE (gasoline gallon equivalents) of CNG, which will provide around 150 miles of range on natural gas. Combined with the standard gas tank, the bi-fuel Impala will have a total range of 500 miles. For commuters with natural gas at home, this could make for a compelling car, especially as a larger alternative to Honda's Civic. However, there are sacrifices, as the CNG tank is mounted in the trunk, cutting the roomy trunk on the 2014 Impala in half, from 19 cubic feet down to 10.
General Motors expects to have the vehicle at dealers by this summer, and has stated that it will be available to both fleets and retail customers.
More trucks and vans for fleet owners and work vehicles
Ford, Chevy, and Dodge (now Ram) have offered factory-approved conversions for a number of years on limited vehicles, but the process has usually involved a third party to convert the vehicle and be responsible for warranty coverage. Not only does this add additional cost, but adding another party if there's a problem could lead to the customer being stuck in the middle while the two parties point fingers at one another about responsibility.
But this is quickly becoming a problem of the past with new vehicles, like Chevy's Silverado 2500 and 3500 HD model pickups. The CNG tank is installed in the bed by a third party, but delivered to the customer by Chevrolet's dealers like any other OEM-built vehicle, and all of the CNG components are covered by GM's factory warranty, a definite step forward.
Ford's partnership with Westport Innovations (NASDAQ:WPRT) will give buyers of America's best selling truck -- Ford's F Series -- a similar experience. As the image above describes, what has historically been a multiple-step process involving the manufacturer and a third party is quickly becoming a seamless experience for buyers and fleet managers.
While Westport provides the warranty on the new components that it adds, all repairs are performed by Ford dealers, and Westport works with the dealer directly to supply necessary replacement parts -- a winning combination for customers. The Westport video below features a testimonial from Lynn Lyon, Director of Fuel Market Development for Pioneer Natural Resources (NYSE:PXD), which is a large user of natural gas for its own fleet of trucks:
Ms. Lyon told me the following, with regards to how the transition for natural gas from large fleets to the consumer is heading:
Historically, large fleets can afford the expense of a private refueling stations. The change is that there is growing demand for public stations. For example, Central Freight has opened the largest public CNG station in the U.S, located in Houston. It is being used by largely Central Freight and Swift Transportation, but is also open to the public. This is just one example of a growing trend of privately built public stations, which will open up the market to both smaller business fleets, as well as consumers. In addition, multiple companies are working on a portable, reliable option for home refueling. Natural gas is already in 50% of U.S. homes, and available for consumers to use.
Stuck in neutral
America's producible supply of natural gas -- estimates range from 50 to more than 150 years of accessible gas -- is higher than it's ever been. Even as access to CNG and LNG has exploded, with several thousand natural gas fueling stations in the U.S., individuals interested in buying a natural gas car have about the same options today as they did a decade ago.
Will that change in the coming years? Access to fuel is growing. If automakers step up, there could be demand from consumers.