Monday, March 02, 2009

Natural Gas or Electricity for Vehicles?

Illustration - Natural gas power plant at Currant Creek, Utah, photo by David Jolley, 2007, Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Since 2008, T. Boone Pickens, a multibillionaire of the oil and natural gas industry, made a name for himself with his plan, Pickens Plan, to reduce oil imports from the United-States using natural gas in motor vehicles specially adapted, such as Honda Civic GX. These cars emit about 20% less CO2 than equivalent petrol car. However, the range of cars using compressed natural gas is only 300 km on a single tank.

The Pickens Plan is simple, it is to close the majority of natural gas power plants in the United-States within 10 years and use the gas to run internal combustion engines of road vehicles instead. In his plan, the natural gas power plants are replaced by wind turbines, which can provide up to 20% of the electricity the United-States, according to experts, while the natural gas power plants currently provide 22%. The Pickens Plan would save up to 38% of oil imports from the United States, according to its author.

At first glance it seems interesting, because it does not consume more natural gas, reduces oil consumption and increase renewables, while powering the United-States' economy, and strengthening energy security!

I have nothing against the building of wind turbines. But, it is much better to consume natural gas in power plants and produce electricity with up to 60% efficiency. Indeed, a vehicle with a good electric motorization is 85% efficient in converting electricity into motive power. Thus, about 50% of the natural gas energy would propel such vehicles, instead of less than 25% for internal combustion engines using directly natural gas.

So, vehicles with electric motorization could reduce U.S. oil imports about twice as much as natural gas vehicles of the Pickens Plan! Moreover, to distribute natural gas to vehicles we would have to implement a new infrastructure, while electric grid and service stations for petrol fuels are already in place, today, for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Consequently, it is much better for vehicles to use electricity as an energy carrier rather than natural gas. This last gaseous fuel is better used in power plants.

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