Gassing up could save us money and emissions

New-generation of gas-powered cars could tide us over until the electric revolution, so why aren’t there any for sale yet?

An attendant fills with a car with compressed natural gas (CNG) at a bi-fuel pump station in Salto, Argentina, which  has the fourth highest number of gas refueling stations in the world. Photograph:  Getty Images

An attendant fills with a car with compressed natural gas (CNG) at a bi-fuel pump station in Salto, Argentina, which has the fourth highest number of gas refueling stations in the world. Photograph: Getty Images

 

As David Bowie might have put it, diesel is now out of bounds to my mother, my dog, and clown. The desperately bad press on the receiving end of which diesel has been since the Volkswagen scandal broke in 2015 has essentially killed the fuel stone dead. Not immediately, and not across the board, but the fact is that in the next few years diesel is going to become a word as dirty as ‘leaded petrol’ and will be eventually taxed out of existence.

Which leaves us in something of a dilemma. After all, while the same mother, dog, and clown all know that electric power is the future, that future is at the far end of a piece of string the length of which we are unaware. What then can get us over that gap, past the point of electric no return? Certainly petrol power has come roaring back in, brought back into contention by diesel’s death and by improvements in technology, but it has its limitations. Try driving a big, chunky SUV with a petrol engine and see what I mean.

Bridging the gap

What about gas? Not in the American idiom, but good, old-fashioned natural gas, the same stuff that boils our kettles and defrosts our houses on a cold December morn’. 20 years ago, gas-powered cars were relatively commonplace, driving around on a faint whiff of rotten eggs, enjoying the benefit of fuel that was usually around half the per-litre cost of petrol and diesel. Could we not bring gas back, to bridge the gap to electric power?

Yes, is the short answer. Maybe, is the longer one. Gas Networks Ireland (which is part of Bord Gais as was) has plans for a network of some 70 fuelling stations, part of a €6.5 million grant from the European Union to further the use of clean transport fuels. They will all be capable of topping up tanks not with LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas), which was the past non-petrol fuel of choice, but with Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). Think of CNG as LPG’s more sophisticated, hipster nephew and you’re getting the idea.

Daniel Fitzpatrick, commercialisation manager at Gas Networks Ireland, told The Irish Times that switching from diesel to CNG is “quite viable, really. We’re currently working on rolling out the infrastructure, and it’s all going to be fast-fill, high-capacity pumps, which can fill the tank of a truck in about five minutes or that of a car in about three-to-five minutes. We’re currently running a test fleet of VW Caddy vans, which are equipped for CNG, and they take about six minutes to fill their 40-litre tanks, which then gives them a range of about 600km, so it’s comparable to petrol power in that respect.”

Commercial vehicles

Sounds good, sign us up, right? Wrong. At least wrong for now. Gas Networks Ireland’s plan for now is to concentrate on getting heavy goods vehicles, trucks, vans, and buses to use their CNG fuel, not cars. “We are focused on the larger vehicles” says Fitzpatrick. “It’s where we can do the most good, the quickest. Three per cent of the vehicles on our roads are responsible for using 20 per cent of road transport energy. One heavy truck is equivalent to 30 cars, so by targeting the big fleet operators, we can do more good, more quickly.”

The benefits are potentially huge - compared to diesel, CNG emits around 22 per cent less CO2, 70 per cent less nitrogen dioxide (the nasty gas at the centre of the VW scandal), and 99 per cent less particulate matter, the little pieces of soot which, if breathed in, can be cancer-causing. On top of which, it’s usually around 35 per cent cheaper per litre than petrol or diesel, depending on how the tax system is setup.

That targeting of big operators also means that the plan can sidestep the tricky question of buying new cars or modifying old ones. Most big trucks are essentially custom-built from the chassis up, so fitting a CNG tank is easier than it is in a more production-intensive passenger car. Fitzpatrick does offer car drivers the encouragement that while the 70 CNG stations being planned will be based around major truck stops and transport hubs, they will all be capable of filling up any CNG-prepared car.

That car will likely come direct from a major manufacturer in CNG form, rather than a modified or converted petrol or diesel car. (“We prefer factory-ready solutions” says Fitzpatrick.) Those Caddy vans currently on test don’t, for instance, have a yellow Calor Gas cylinder held in the boot with cable-ties. Instead, they’re CNG enabled from the factory, with a dedicated 40-litre CNG tank, and a small eight-litre petrol tank as an emergency reserve should the van become stranded too far away from a gas pump. Which, seeing as there is only one such pump in Ireland right now, is kinda likely.

‘Home brew’ gas

Audi, which will shortly put a CNG-fuelled A5 G-Tron on sale in Germany, promises that by the end of next year their cars can be fuelled by Audi’s own ‘home-brew’ e-gas
Audi, which will shortly put a CNG-fuelled A5 G-Tron on sale in Germany, promises it can be fuelled by Audi’s own ‘home-brew’ e-gas

There are car makers looking seriously at CNG power though, and primary amongst them is Audi, which will shortly put both a CNG-fuelled A5 G-Tron and an A4 Avant G-Tron on sale in Germany, and has just offered those who sign up for a new A3 G-Tron in 2018 a promise that their cars will be fuelled by Audi’s own ‘home-brew’ e-gas. Audi’s vision is not only to have fuelling stations capable of topping up a CNG car, but to give customers a pump at home, allowing them to fill their tanks from their domestic gas supplies - CNG is identical to the gas with which you cook your evening meal. “This offer is our next step in climate-neutral, long distance mobility. Our promise to the customers is: no compromises. The g-tron models are sporty, sophisticated and progressive - like every Audi. And with Audi e-gas they are also very climate-friendly on the road,” said Dietmar Voggenreiter, Member of the Board of Management for Sales and Marketing at Audi.

Audi’s vision is not only to have fuelling stations capable of topping up a CNG car, but to give customers a pump at home, allowing them to fill their tanks from their domestic gas supplies

Audi claims that its own-brand e-Gas is 80 per cent lower in Co2 than conventional diesel or petrol, once you factor in its wheel-to-well emissions. Among other places, the brand obtains e-gas from its own power-to-gas facility in Werlte, a town in the German state of Lower Saxony. The process uses mostly excess green electricity to operate three electrolysers, which break water down into oxygen and hydrogen. In the methanation process that follows, the hydrogen reacts with Co2. This produces synthetic methane - the Audi e-gas, which is then fed into the national gas grid. Sadly Audi Ireland, when asked, told The Irish Times that there are no plans for right-hand drive production of any G-Trong models as yet.

Natural reserve

Ireland isn’t falling behind on such eco-friendly measures, though. Although much of the gas being proposed for use in CNG vehicles comes from the controversial Corrib gas field off the west coast, Gas Networks Ireland points out that while there is some public distaste over the politics of that gas and its extraction, it does at least provide the country with a modicum of energy security - OPEC can’t take it off us, in other words. Beyond that, there are also plans to tap the agricultural and waste industries for gas.

The decomposition of both farm and household waste produces methane, which can be converted into natural gas and then CNG, and Gas Networks Ireland already has a pilot project in Nurney, co. Kildare, doing just that. “We’re looking at capturing methane from agricultural processes” says Fitzpatrick, “which would make our gas a zero-carbon fuel. There’s a huge opportunity there, from the point of view of security of supply, along with providing local jobs and putting money into farmers’ pockets. At the moment, all of the production from the pilot project goes into the main gas network, but it’s quite big - the equivalent of 100kWh, which would be enough to power 300 buses, running full time.”

Gas revolution?

Will we see a new gas revolution, before the electric revolution builds up sufficient pace? It’s possible. These 70 new stations will certainly help, but what we need is the cars, and given the glacially-slow uptake of electric cars in Ireland, thus far, the car makers could take quite some convincing that there’s enough demand to justify production.