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Natural gas powered vehicles on the rise, even as refueling device maker goes bust

FuelMaker, the Honda-owned, Canada-based manufacturer of natural gas fueling systems for vehicles, went belly-up last week. The company made the only residential natural gas refueling product (called Phill) in the world.  

Fortunately for vehicle owners, Honda plans to sell the company’s assets and intellectual property, meaning FuelMaker products, albeit under a different name, are likely to remain available, says Alicia Milner, president of the Canadian Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance.

FuelMaker was born of automakers’ desire to address the public’s urge to break or at least lessen its addiction to fossil fuels. Car companies have increasingly turned to batteries, hydrogen, and solar power to energize new generations of vehicles. Less conspicuous in this shift to cleaner fuels has been natural gas, far cleaner burning than gasoline, and already the leading alternative fuel source for U.S. commercial fleets, powering about 10 percent of the mass transit buses in the U.S. and 5 percent of those in Canada, Milner says. The monthly consumption of natural gas by domestic vehicles has quadrupled the last decade as more vehicles have taken to the streets, according to the Energy Information Administration.

But despite their inroads and popularity overseas, natural gas-powered vehicles haven’t caught on in the U.S. consumer market, with the Honda Civic GX standing as the only natural gas-powered car currently available. First introduced for government sector work in 1998, Honda later made the Civic GX available for retail sales in California and New York. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has named the Civic GX the "greenest vehicle" sold in the U.S. for six years running, though Honda only makes around 1,000 of them annually.  

The classic chicken-or-the-egg problem of too few fueling stations has hindered the Civic GX and other alternative energy-powered vehicles. A paucity of places to fuel up makes a purchase less attractive to a potential buyer, meaning fewer cars sold, lessening need for more fueling stations, and so on. The Civic GX gets about 33 miles (53 kilometers) per gallon of compressed natural gas (CNG), giving it about a 170 mile- (275 kilometer-) range on a full tank, and it is cheaper to refill than a gas tank. But having to carefully plan an outing based on CNG refueling locations presents a hassle for drivers.  

The at-home fueling option introduced via the Phill was meant to break that cycle by tapping into a home’s natural gas line. However, the unit’s price tag including installation of about $5,000 and the 12 hours it takes to refill the CNG tank gave eco-conscious auto shoppers all the more reason to plunk down on a gas-electric hybrid instead.

The price of the Phill may come down in price as another entity picks up FuelMaker’s pieces and continues with production, Milner says. Clean Energy FuelsT. Boone Pickens’ natural gas distributing company – had been in talks with Honda about buying FuelMaker, but couldn’t reach a deal, reports the New York Times.

Milner predicts that companies looking to green their commercial fleets will increasingly turn to natural gas. Just last month, AT&T announced plans to spend $350 million to buy 8,000 Ford Motor Company vans and trucks and convert them to CNG-fueled vehicles, and to build 40 new CNG stations. The company’s move is "the single largest commitment ever by a U.S. corporation toward using alternative fueled vehicles," TG Daily, a technology Web site, writes.

A mass transit bus that runs on compressed natural gas, Image Credit: EPA

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