Auto Energy Alternatives Down the Road Supply Precedes Demand for Compressed Natural Gas. GOING WITHOUT GASOLINE

Article excerpt

BUYING a gasoline-fueled automobile before there were gas stations was one of those supply-will-follow-demand acts of faith.

Today, supply is preceding demand when it comes to natural gas. For the equivalent of 60 to 70 cents a gallon, compressed natural gas (CNG) can be pumped at street-corner service stations in a growing number of urban locations.

Advocates of CNG-fueled vehicles believe that widespread industry and consumer demand for the clean-burning, inexpensive, auto fuel is just around the corner - especially with the increase in tough clean-air laws and the Iraqi reminder of the United States' precarious dependence on foreign oil.

"No one is demanding this," says Norman L. Bryan, vice president of Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), which last month opened the second of its seven planned compressed natural gas (CNG) refueling stations. But as state and federal clean air laws grow tougher, officials at the northern California utility - as well as a growing number of other CNG-fuel marketers in the United States - are positioning their companies for what they expect to be a strong demand for the low-cost, clean-burning CNG.

Only 13 public natural-gas vehicle refueling stations existed in the US in 1986, American Gas Association data show. But in urban areas, it is getting much easier for single vehicles, or fleet vehicles of companies not willing or able to invest in their own refueling stations, to drive up to a pump and fill their CNG cylinders from a high-pressure (3,000 pounds per square inch) hose.

More than 50 public stations (there are 300 private stations) were operating last year, and over a dozen more have opened this year. Most are run by state utilities.

But this month, San Diego Gas and Electric announced a joint venture in CNG refueling stations with Unical oil company. A private Denver company, Natural Fuels Corporation, operates two private refueling stations, including one with a 10-bay garage for converting vehicles to CNG and servicing them, and also supplies two Amoco service stations with natural gas.

"This is a very bold step," says Steve Plotkin, senior associate in energy at the Office of Technology Assessment, the analytical arm of Congress. "They're doing this more for symbolic reasons than commercial for the moment ... but the moment could last 50 years. …