The swing toward natural gas vehicles (NGV) took on aspects of a bandwagon last week as two major automakers paraded out new natural gas-powered pickup trucks, and GE and Chesapeake Energy Corp. heralded a new “CNG In A Box” fueling station.

Not to be left out, American Honda Motor Co., which bills itself as the only automaker selling natural gas-powered passenger cars in the U.S. (Honda Civic), said it would be helping to answer the “chicken and egg” conundrum by installing compressed natural gas (CNG) pumps in some of its dealerships.

President Obama also addressed the “which comes first” question last week, including natural gas-powered vehicles in his $1 billion National Community Deployment Challenge to spur deployment of alternative fuel vehicles in communities around the country.

“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how much natural gas or flexfuel or electric vehicles you have, if there’s no place to charge them up or fill them up,” Obama said at the Daimler Trucks North America Mt. Holly Truck Manufacturing Plant in Mount Holly, NC. “So that’s why I’m announcing…a program that will put our communities on the cutting edge of what clean energy can do. To cities and towns all across the country, what we’re going to say is ‘if you make a commitment to buy more advanced vehicles for your community, whether they run on electricity or biofuels or natural gas, we’ll help you cut through the red tape and build fueling stations nearby.'”

The program would help 10-15 communities to invest in the necessary infrastructure, remove regulatory barriers and create local incentives to support deployment of alternative fuel vehicles “at critical mass,” according to the White House. The proposal would be “fuel neutral,” allowing communities to determine if electrification, natural gas or other alternative fuels would be the best fit.

“Deployment communities would serve as real-world laboratories, leveraging limited federal resources to develop different models to deploy advanced vehicles at scale,” the White House said. The program would also support the development of up to five regional liquefied natural gas corridors where alternative fuel trucks could transport goods without using oil.

The president is also proposing a new tax incentive for commercial trucks that provides a credit for 50% of the incremental cost of a dedicated alternative-fuel truck, including trucks powered by natural gas or electricity, for a five-year period. The program includes incentives to help consumers and businesses purchase new, advanced cars and trucks, including increasing and expanding the current tax credit for advanced vehicles to $10,000 from the current $7,500, while allowing the credit to be applied to additional types of technologies not currently covered. And the president announced a research challenge that would invest in breakthrough technologies to make electric vehicles as affordable and convenient to operate as gasoline-powered vehicles by the end of the decade.

Obama’s support of alternative fuel vehicles and tax rebates came on the heels of announcements by General Motors (GM) and Chrysler that they would have new bifuel CNG pickup trucks for fleet operators on the road before the year gets much older.

GM’s Chevrolet and GMC units rolled out a new bifuel CNG line of 2013 pickup trucks that are to offer a 650-mile range. GM said it would be taking orders beginning in April and initial models are to be on the road by the end of this year. GM’s trucks are to be built in Fort Wayne, ID, and then sent to GM’s supplier, IMPCO Technologies Inc., for installation of the CNG system under GM’s engineering specification as an original equipment manufactured (OEM) vehicle. The CNG bifuels for both the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra 2500 HD extended cab pickup trucks have been requested by fleet operators and individual customers alike, the automaker said.

On the heels of that announcement, Chrysler Group LLC said last Tuesday it plans to become North America’s only auto manufacturer to offer a fully factory-built CNG) pickup truck. Pricing for the Chrysler vehicle is to start at $47,500, and the first contingent of the new trucks are to be on the market in July, the automaker said. Chrysler said its Ram 2500 heavy duty CNG pickup is aimed at fleet and commercial customers. The Ram HD CNG is to be powered by the 5.7 liter HEMI(r) V-8 engine and would feature both CNG storage tanks and an 8-gal gasoline fuel tank. In Canada, customers could opt for a 35-gallon gasoline tank.

GM is not giving a price range for the natural gas/gasoline vehicles, but with CNG prices around the low $2/gallon-gasoline equivalent, customers are expected to recover any added sticker price with fuel savings of $6,000-10,000/vehicle over a three-year period, according to GM’s Joyce Mattman, director of commercial product and specialty vehicles.

Chrysler’s Robert Lee, head of its engine and electrified propulsion engineering, praised CNG’s ready availability and its compatibility with the 5.7-liter HEMI. “CNG demonstrates a reduction of 70-90% of smog-producing pollutants and significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions.”

The GM and Chrysler CNG systems operate similarly — gasoline is needed to start the truck and then the CNG kicks in automatically. When the natural gas is depleted, the vehicle automatically switches back to gasoline. The Ram CNG-only range is 255 miles, while the back up gasoline supply gives the vehicle a total range of 367 miles. The GM CNG trucks offers up to 650 miles of combined natural gas/gasoline range.

And now about that chicken or egg: Chesapeake Energy Corp. and General Electric (GE) last week unveiled “CNG In A Box,” a natural gas fueling system, which they claim will lower fleet vehicle fueling costs by 40% and emissions by 24%.

Chesapeake’s Kent Wilkinson, vice president of Natural Gas Ventures, said the duo plan first to work on fleet vehicle solutions, with GE rolling out its proprietary CNG In A Box later this year with around 250 modular and standardized CNG compression stations for NGV infrastructure. Since Chesapeake has a leasehold in almost every major unconventional natural gas basin in the United States, it’s a foregone conclusion that some of those CNG boxes (your choice: an 8X20 foot or 8X40 foot container) will be turning up in some of those production areas (see related story).

And there will be other buyers as well. “America’s natural gas utilities encouraged these manufacturers to bring bi-fuel vehicles to market and are ready to support them by purchasing these vehicles in our own fleets. We’re confident that fleet customers from a wide variety of businesses will see take advantage of the same opportunity and want to purchase these new CNG models,”the American Gas Association said.

Atlanta Gas Light Co. (AGL) recently issued a request for proposals (RFP) for developers interested in building CNG fueling stations for commercial fleets and passenger vehicles in Georgia. The RFP envisions a five-year push that could cost nearly $12 million. Bids are due April 16.

AGL seeks to have work on some of the stations begin by the end of this year. The RFP is the latest step in AGL’s implementation of a network of CNG fueling stations, which was approved by the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) last November. The PSC authorized AGL to invest $11.7 million to stimulate private investment to build as many as 10 stations. Private retailers are eyed as the owner/operators of the stations.

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