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By Edward McAllister
NEW YORK Oct 4 When Connie Jones arrives home
from her job as an information technology manager in Chandler,
Arizona, she parks her car in her garage and fills it up with
natural gas. It is a convenience that relatively few Americans
"We hook it up, turn it on, and it fills up overnight," said
Connie's husband Travis, who bought a natural gas home refueling
unit in January 2012.
With natural gas at $1.40 per equivalent gallon, it costs
the Joneses $30 to drive their Honda Civic GX 1,200 miles (1,930
km) each month, about $130 less than an average gasoline car
covering the same distance.
Home refueling units, which tap into a house natural gas
main and compress the fuel so it can fill a vehicle tank
overnight, have been available for years.
But even though the fuel is cheap and units have to meet
safety standards like other household appliances, home refilling
is uncommon in the United States, held back by the upfront
expense of buying and installing new units, and a lack of
natural gas cars. The cars themselves generally cost about
$10,000 more than comparable conventional vehicles.
"Affordable home refueling is the missing link to public
adoption of natural gas vehicles in far greater numbers," said
Curtis Martin, program director of the government-funded Clean
Cities Coalition in Antelope Valley, California.
That may soon change. As the U.S. natural gas drilling boom
pushes output to record highs and promises sustained lower
prices, General Electric Co, Whirlpool Corp,
Eaton Corp and others are developing more affordable
home refueling systems. For about a tenth of the price of
current models, plus installation, they aim to sell the new
units to the millions of homes across America already hooked up
to natural gas supplies.
At the same time, energy providers in Georgia, California
and Utah are in talks about distributing new refueling units
when they become available in the next two years, according to
interviews with industry executives, aiming to stimulate natural
gas demand. Honda Motor Co Ltd, which makes one of the
only natural gas passenger cars sold in the United States, has
also expressed interest in the new technology.
At present, an Italian company called BRC Fuelmaker is the
only major manufacturer of such units, which cost about $4,500
and can be installed for around $1,500, depending on the work
needed. Its smallest, called the Phill, is about the size of a
vacuum cleaner, suitable for mounting on a garage wall.
For the Joneses, who last year paid $6,000 for purchasing
and installing their home fueling unit, it will take about four
years to pay off the initial outlay, experts say.
Still, BRC has only sold about 13,000 home units through 25
distributors across the country, according to Francesco
Donalisio, director of sales in North America. Sales of the BRC
units have not risen in the last five years.
"The high initial investment stops people switching to
compressed natural gas," said Donalisio, who expressed doubts
about whether the new technologies would reduce the cost
AGL Resources, a natural gas provider in Atlanta, began a
program in 2012 to lease the Phill model to customers for $60 a
month. The venture has disappointed so far, with fewer than ten
"Home refueling has not grown as much as people would have
hoped because there aren't many cars to choose from," said Kevin
McCrackin, vice president of business development at AGL
Resources in Atlanta.
FEW PLACES TO FILL UP
The new units, if successful, could make natural gas a more
viable alternative to gasoline, driving up sales of the
There are now only about 66,000 light-duty natural
gas-powered cars on U.S. roads, according to the Department of
Energy, which tracks vehicles fired by alternative fuels. That
is a tiny fraction of the nearly 200 million light-duty vehicles
on U.S. roads, according to the Transportation Department.
One of the reasons the number is so low is a sparse
refueling infrastructure for ordinary drivers. Drivers can fill
up at only 605 public compressed natural gas (CNG) stations in
the United States, versus more than 120,000 gasoline stations.
While few experts are expecting a quick shift in the overall
U.S. fleet, natural gas cars could soon complement electric
vehicles in denting U.S. reliance on gasoline if it becomes
easier to fill up.
While the number of small consumer natural gas cars on the
road is far smaller than electric vehicles, their 200-mile (322-
km) range is twice as large as most electric cars - and they
fill up faster.
With strong backing from the likes of billionaire T. Boone
Pickens, the focus until now has been on converting fleet
vehicles to natural gas. Buses, garbage trucks and other heavy
duty vehicles can fill up at a central location for between $1
and $1.40 a gallon, $2 cheaper than a gallon of gasoline.
Electric vehicle sales have risen considerably in recent
years, partly because of the home refueling options.
More than 90 percent of the 150,000 electric vehicle owners
in the United States use home plug-ins, retailing for about
$1,000, not including varying installation costs. Some electric
vehicle appliances require a new 220-volt electrical system,
which can cost a few hundred dollars.
"There is probably enough room in the market for both types
of vehicles," said Jay Friedland, legislative director at Plug
In America, an electric vehicle advocacy group. "I think they
are both displacing gasoline vehicles."
REDUCE THE PRICE
From a small warehouse in North Salt Lake City, Utah, a
little-known company called Go Natural CNG is about to release a
new home refueling system after more than two years of research.
The system, backed by technology giant Parker Hannifin Corp,
will fill up quicker than some models - about one gallon an hour
- and last up to 20 years, according to Go Natural CNG Chief
Executive Lucas Kjar. The unit, expected by the end of the year,
will use hydraulic technology to compress the gas for vehicle
use, he said. He did not say how much the unit would cost.
But Go Natural may have a lot of competition. General
Electric, Whirlpool and Eaton are all working on home refueling
technologies expected to be launched in the next couple of
years. Their work is attracting interest from utilities with
millions of customers, including Questar Corp in Utah
and AGL Resources Inc in Georgia.
GE, which received a $1.8 million government grant to
develop its system, aims to release a unit that will cool
natural gas to minus 50 degrees Celsius to extract water and
other contaminates before refueling. The process will eliminate
the need for gas compression, or maintenance of the unit, it
says. GE aims to sell the unit at $500 retail, about a tenth of
the cost of current models.
Honda, which makes the natural gas-fired Honda Civic GX, has
contacted GE and Whirlpool to discuss their plans, according to
Elmer Hardy, Honda's senior manager of alternative fuel
GE said it was in the development phase and declined to
comment on the program's progress. Whirlpool declined comment.
Eaton Corp, which received a $3.4 million government grant
to develop the technology, is working on a unit at its labs in
Southfield, Michigan, that would use liquids to compress the gas
instead of the traditional metal pistons. It aims to make a unit
available for $500 by 2015.
"We are seeing if we can do it in a way that reduces the
price point," said Clark Fortune, who leads the program at
Eaton. "The adoption will improve if the costs come down."
(Editing by Frank McGurty)