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NGV Innovations Lift Market -- But How High?

Differing state and federal environmental regulations, and a lack of political will to streamline them, may retard growth of natural gas vehicles (NGV), but the market continues to push for innovation and growth.

Peake Fuel Solutions LLC, A unit of Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy Corp., is offering a conversion kit to allow diesel-powered vehicles to run on diesel natural gas (DNG). The conversion kits are expected to be available early next year. The DNG equipment is said to offer a way for heavy-duty truck operators, many of which run on diesel, to save up to 30% on their fuel bills.

Houston-based producer Apache Corp. also has signed a deal with retailer Stripes LLC to add compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling capacity on a pilot basis at two locations in Midland, TX. Based on the results, Stripes CEO Steve DeSutter said he expects to "gradually roll out" compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling capability at other retail market locations.

In addition, Westport Innovations Inc. last week unveiled a technologically advanced liquefied natural gas (LNG) fuel tank for trucks, which it claims allows fueling for even the largest LNG vehicles on a single tank with expanded range. The fueling system would be available in mid 2013 in 120-and 150-gallon sizes, optimized for spark-ignited (SI) engines. The proprietary technology would remove the current need to have two fuel tanks on SI engine NGV trucks. In a single-tank configuration, the systems can run from 350-450 miles on a tank of fuel; it's double in the dual tanks. The single LNG tank equals three compressed natural gas (CNG) tanks for comparable range."There are various state and federal regulations, so our technology is designed to satisfy all of those regulations," said a spokesperson for Vancouver, BC-based Westport Innovations Inc.

The innovations continue, even though some observers believe the market isn't there.

In a white paper, the Ben Franklin Shale Gas Innovation and Commercialization Center in Pennsylvania predicted that the bulk of the U.S. NGV market will be centered on older, fleet vehicles beyond their service lives of eight to 12 years since that can lessen the regulations that apply.

"It is unlikely that this situation will change in the next several years," said Brian Krier, who authored the report. Concentrating on Pennsylvania and U.S. Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) certification requirements dating back to 1997, Krier said Pennsylvania adopted more stringent-than-EPA requirements established by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). The realities of the differing rules offer a "confusing, daunting set of obstacles," will likely "require that most NGV technology manufacturers work with an original equipment manufacturer or strategic partner familiar with the EPA and CARB processes."

Krier concluded that these regulatory factors "will slow and probably cap the penetration of natural gas solutions in transportation. Most manufacturers will sell to off-road niche markets in the United States, or manufacture for fleets and popular vehicle types while pursuing foreign sales in Latin America, Poland and other places that are developing shale gas resources."

Westport's spokesman told NGI that various environmental and safety regulations are factored in as a normal course of the company's business. "We stay on top of any of the regulatory policy issues that affect the development of the technology or the manufacturing of the engines. For the most part, the most stringent regulations relate to the emissions side."

Richard Kolodziej. president of NGV America, said no states oppose natural gas use for transportation, "it is just that some states are more supportive than others." For emissions, the states vary between EPA and CARB regulations, and for NGV conversions they vary even more, he said.

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