Among competing alternative vehicle fuels, natural gas has been one of the pioneers in creating fueling corridors along U.S. interstate highways, which advocates for natural gas vehicles (NGV) outlined plans for in "America's Natural Gas Highway" eight years ago.
Today, major NGV suppliers such as Newport Beach, CA-based Clean Energy Fuels Corp. (CEF) see the corridors as nearly complete, as fuel alternatives such as hydrogen and electric vehicles (EV) are just starting down a similar path.
Earlier this month, a consortium of utilities along the West Coast announced plans to study the concept of an EV recharging network spanning Interstate 5 from the U.S.-Mexico border to the U.S.-Canada border, supported initially by nine utilities and two agencies representing 27 municipal utilities in California, Oregon and Washington.
Like the natural gas equivalent fueling corridors, the EV charging network is focused on heavy duty trucks that are still in the development stage.
The EV truck charging network, aka the West Coast Clean Transit Corridor Initiative, is aimed at curbing air pollution and reducing greenhouse gas emissions along the heavily traveled corridor, particularly among trucking fleets.
The NGV sector, in contrast, has a fairly mature infrastructure of fueling stations, dating back to the launch of its highway initiative in 2011. Today there are nearly 2,000 compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) stations, according to the trade organization NGVAmerica. CEF operates 535 of those facilities.
A statewide push in Oklahoma has resulted in a CNG station for every 100 miles of interstate highway, said NGVAmerica President Dan Gage. "There is a bill in Congress [H.R. 5959] to build out these alternative fuel highways that could be included in an upcoming infrastructure or surface transportation reauthorization bill," Gage said.
NGVAmerica's website carries an interactive national map with all NGV fueling locations.
The California Energy Commission (CEC) awards $20 million in grants annually for the planning, developing and deploying of hydrogen refueling stations until there are at least 100 publicly available stations in the state. Former Gov. Jerry Brown set a goal of having 200 stations by 2025.
"Currently, California has 39 hydrogen stations open to the public, and another 26 stations in various stages of development," said CEC spokesperson Albert Lundeen. The state once planned to develop a “Hydrogen Highway,” which was to include 100 fueling stations between Los Angeles and San Francisco by 2010, but that never happened.
Lundeen said CEC staff categorizes NGVs and their fueling infrastructure as "commercially mature technologies," and thus there are no funds allocated for NGV vehicle incentives or infrastructure projects in the 2019-2020 fiscal year budget.
The lack of state funding belies the fact that more than $82 million was provided to the NGV sector over the years under the CEC alternative and renewable fuel and vehicle technology grant program. Another $24 million was provided for fueling stations, and the five-member commission recently allocated $4 million for CNG school buses.
The San Joaquin Valley and the four-county South Coast regions were each awarded $8 million last year to support incentive programs for NGV purchases. More recently, biofuel demonstration projects were targeted for up to $15.6 million in CEC funds for six biomethane production projects.
CEF partnered with Pilot Flying J Travel Centers in 2011 to open an LNG fueling station in Baytown, TX. The station was the first of what was promoted as a 150-station "natural gas highway," and was funded as part of a $150 million investment from three global private investment firms to CEF.
CEF helped eventually create "America's NGV Highway," but it still doesn't match the U.S. network of diesel truck stations, according to CEF executive Gary Foster, who calls it "a start."
Foster told NGI that CEF operates 110 NGV stations that can accommodate Class 8 heavy duty (HD) trucks among its 535 fueling stations throughout North America. Other major NGV fueling developers are building more stations for HD trucks, Foster said.
Since the 2014 global oil price collapse, NGV station development hit a lull, but in the past two years that is picking up, according to Foster. "We believe that growth of NGV fueling in the HD trucking market will continue," he said.
Between the new near-zero emission 12-liter NGV engines for the HD sector and oil/diesel prices getting to levels that make natural gas more competitive, Foster said "all signs point to growth." And CEF has truck financing programs that can add to the fuel price advantages, he said.