Lots of Alternatives Usage of Non-Petroleum Fuels on the Rise, Yet Vehicle Sales Down

By Kelner, Braden | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), June 16, 2015 | Go to article overview

Lots of Alternatives Usage of Non-Petroleum Fuels on the Rise, Yet Vehicle Sales Down


Kelner, Braden, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Non-petroleum fuels are being used for transportation in amounts not seen in 60 years, according to federal data.

Alternative fuels - ethanol, natural gas and electricity - have more than doubled their share of the transportation sector since the mid-2000s and now make up 8.5 percent of the market, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In the 1950s, petroleum use soared along with booming car sales. along with the popularity of cars while the use of coal in locomotives declined. Today, growth in non-petroleum fuels is being spurred by federal mandates on alternative fuels.

Ethanol is now a standard addition to gasoline - about 13 billion gallons of ethanol were added in the U.S. last year, according to the EIA. The Environmental Protection Agency in May announced further goals to require refiners to up the use of biofuels to 16.3 billion gallons this year.

Yet in the use of other alternative fuels - natural gas and electricity - passenger cars are not driving the growth. In fact, sales have stalled, partly due to competition from lower gasoline prices.

Natural gas vehicle adoption slow

In general, natural gas used for transportation has been climbing. Usage neared 1 quadrillion British thermal units last year, beating previous records and making up about 3.5 percent of all natural gas used, according to government data. But that trend isn't necessarily being seen in personal vehicles. Rather, those levels can largely be attributed to pipelines and compressor stations that use natural gas to operate while shipping the commodity from the wellhead to market, according to the EIA.

While natural gas used in vehicles has doubled since 2000, according to the report, adoption of such vehicles has been slow.

There are about 153,000 natural gas vehicles on U.S. roads, of which 87,000 are light-duty vehicles like passenger cars, mostly comprising business and government fleets, according to Natural Gas Vehicles for America (NGVAmerica), a Washington, D.C., advocacy organization.

Overall, the production and sale of natural gas vehicles fell by 6.5 percent in 2014. While larger vehicles like shuttles, box trucks and garbage trucks sold well, producers sold only 6,650 light-duty vehicles in 2014, 3,500 less than in 2013, NGVAmerica noted.

Pushing into sales of alternative vehicles is competition from plummeting gasoline prices.

"The price of oil has sort of hurt the marketplace this year," said Matthew Godlewski, NGVAmerica president. "Where oil has fallen, there's been a corresponding drop in diesel and gasoline prices. That's certainly put some people on the sidelines in the [marketplace]."

Despite lower oil prices, Mr. Godlewski sees promise in a market where natural gas prices are largely determined by the U.S.'s own production, rather than an oil market in which prices are more dependent on the world stage.

"The future's bright, and a lot of this is based on the long- term availability and affordability of natural gas in the U.S.," Mr. Godlewski said.

Still, it's a rocky road.

"We don't see a lot of interest in [natural gas vehicles]," said Jessica Caldwell, director of industry analysis at Edmunds.com, a website providing tools and analysis on buying vehicles. "[It's] not something that is on consumers' minds. …

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