Advances in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to obtain natural gas have made this resource an abundantly available and comparatively inexpensive source of fuel. While electric utility generators have traditionally favored large coal-or nuclear-powered plants to supply electricity to a designated grid, natural gas has steadily risen in popularity within this sector since the 1990’s - if it continues along its current path, natural gas is projected to overtake coal and nuclear power as a primary source of alternative energy over the next few decades. Automakers, however, are still struggling to put America’s prodigious volumes of natural gas to their use.
While coal may still be the cheapest means of generating electricity, it is also the dirtiest, causing smog, soot, acid rain, and other toxic air pollutants. Natural gas burns cleaner, and releases dramatically fewer emissions into the atmosphere - a nearly 30 percent reduction in carbon output and toxins. It’s also cheaper by as much as $1 per gallon equivalent, even as the prices of gas and diesel have plummeted in recent weeks. When used to power vehicles, it’s one of the leading choices for environmentally-conscious drivers worldwide.
But despite its comparatively clean and reliable track record, CNG vehicles have had a hard time catching on in the United States. The average yearly growth rate for the U.S. hovers at around 4%, as contrasted with an impressive global growth rate of over 30%. Government agencies and private companies are making massive investments to boost America’s natural gas fueling infrastructure, but the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel remains relatively modest. Most CNG vehicles offered today are available for commercial truck fleets, or as buses and medium-duty and heavy-duty trucks. Because there are so few personal vehicles running on compressed natural gas, companies are unwilling to invest in the construction of a network of refueling stations. And auto companies don’t want to build CNG vehicles if drivers will have no where to gas up.
The compressed natural gas success story in the United States is still in its infancy. But as technology advances, the domestic uses for natural gas multiply. Furnaces and water heaters powered by the alternative fuel can allow homeowners to save between $300-$1,262 per year on their utility bills. In typical home appliances, the use of natural gas cuts energy consumption by 28 percent and produces 37 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Innovators in the fuel industry soon hope to give individuals the option to generate their own electricity at home, using natural gas to power small generators (more info at Direct Energy’s website). Our energy future continues to hang in the balance, and while the harvesting and transport of natural gas pose a threat to its success, it remains one of the most promising advances in the energy sector.
As with all fossil fuels, natural gas began as microorganisms living in the ocean. As such, natural gas is a non-renewable resource (at least in our lifetime) and it’s important to remember that it won’t be available forever. Lack of infrastructure also complicates matters, and some fracking companies have become victims of their own success when productivity outpaces access to pipelines. The fracking process itself is also an enormous concern, and so far over 100 U.S. municipalities have banned fracking due to concerns about groundwater contamination.
Air pollution, hazardous wastes and other issues are also connected with use of hydraulic fracturing, and have been linked to increases in health problems in people living near fracking sites. Tests from these areas have also revealed high levels of benzene, formaldehyde and other cancer-causing chemicals in the air.
With fracking production outpacing the science on its impact, continued drilling has sparked public outcry and outrage from environmentalists. That said, the increase in available natural gas, along with increasingly strict vehicle emission requirements and a gradual improvement in fueling infrastructure, can be expected to continue to push the market for CNG passenger cars in conjunction with the increased demand for home heating and appliance applications. In 2013, 27% of U.S. electricity was generated from natural gas, more than doubling from
amounts used for that purpose in 2004. While natural gas’s role in climate change remains controversial, our hunger for energy resources as insatiable as ever. With a cheap, domestic energy source at our disposal it seems foolish to throw the baby out with the fracking water.