Robert Bryce on Natural Gas Vehicles
[This excerpt from Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future is used with permission of the author. Copies of Power Hungry can be purchased here.]
Making fun of T. Boone Pickens is easy. But give him his due: he’s right about using more natural gas in the transportation sector. That concept makes economic sense for many fleet operators.
But – and it’s a big but – Pickens has grossly exaggerated the ability of the U.S. to make a quick transition to natural gas fueled vehicles. On the Pickens Plan website (PickensPlan.com), the billionaire claims that using more wind power and “increasing the use of our natural gas resources can replace more than one-third of our foreign oil imports in 10 years.”
That’s an easy claim to make. But Pickens can’t do it. And he can’t do it even if he were somehow able to manage a 100-fold increase in the number of natural gas-fueled vehicles in the U.S. and do so in just ten years. Building a large fleet of natural gas vehicles – and more importantly, the refueling infrastructure to support them – will take decades, not years.
The numbers simply don’t work. Let’s look at oil imports: In 2008, the U.S. imported an average of 12.9 million barrels of oil and oil products per day (EIA data). One-third of that volume – the amount Pickens claims he can save – is about 4.25 million barrels of oil per day. Fine. Let’s run the numbers.
According to Natural Gas Vehicles for America (NGV America), a Washington, D.C.-based trade association, there are about 120,000 natural gas vehicles now in use in the US. Each of those vehicles consumes about 1,500 gasoline-gallon-equivalents per year. (1) Using that 1,500-gallon-per vehicle figure, those 120,000 NGVs conserve the equivalent of about 180 million gallons of oil per year.
Now let’s multiply that number by 100. Doing so increases the US fleet to 12 million NGVs which could save 18 billion gallons of fuel per year, which is the equivalent of 1.17 million barrels of oil per day. (To convert gallons per year to barrels per day, divide by 15,330.) That type of reduction is significant. But getting to that fleet size would require a Herculean effort. If the U.S. had 12 million NGVs, that fleet would be larger than that of the current global fleet of NGVs, which numbers about 9.6 million vehicles. (2)
Pickens led a gullible media and an even-more-gullible public, to believe that the evils of foreign oil could be overcome if only the public provided him with a few more subsidies for his pet projects. And Pickens put forward his plan without discussing any fuels other than wind and natural gas.
The fact that his deeply flawed plan was so readily accepted by so many journalists and politicos provides additional evidence for the lack of skepticism about green energy in general and wind power in particular.
(1) NGVAmerica.org. “Fact Sheet: Potential Contribution of NGVs to Displacing 35 Billion Gallons of Non-Petroleum Fuels by 2017,” undated. While the 1,500 gallon figure is used here, keep in mind that the average personal car in the US only uses about 600 gallons of fuel per year. Thus, any move toward NGVs in the passenger car fleet will have an even smaller impact on overall oil consumption.
(2) International Association of Natural Gas Vehicles, “Natural gas vehicle statistics,” undated.