Test-Driving a Natural Gas-Powered Car

"You don't know what I'm talking about."

T. Boone Pickens had me nailed. We were aboard his Gulfstream jet, flying back from a day of shooting one of his "Pickens Plan" energy commercials at a west Texas wind farm. The billionaire oilman turned wind-energy evangelist was rhapsodizing about the new fueling system he was having installed in his Dallas mansion. Using a home fueling unit in his garage that runs off the same gas line that powers his stove (Boone Pickens cooks?), he would be able to fill up his natural-gas-powered Honda Civic for the equivalent of about $1.20 per gallon, he explained. All from the comfort of his own home.

I feigned reportorial omniscience, but had to admit—I really didn't know what he was talking about. That night, from my hotel in Dallas, I called my brother, an energy-industry executive in Houston. He didn't know much about compressed natural gas (CNG) as a consumer transportation fuel either. So I decided to take Pickens' suggestion, and go find out for myself.

Natural gas is a relatively abundant, domestically produced fossil fuel—one of the byproducts of drilling for oil. Most natural gas is used today to fire power plants, produce electricity and heat homes. While large vehicle fleets such as buses, taxis, garbage trucks and government vehicles have long been powered by natural gas, the use of CNG as a consumer fuel in the United States is still largely a niche market. Of the 8.4 million natural-gas-powered vehicles worldwide, only 120,000 are in the United States, and of those, only about 1,500 or so are owned by individual consumers, a set of statistics that makes Pickens go ballistic. He says he's motivated by patriotism, but let's not forget that included in his business empire is Clean Energy Fuels Corp (CLNE), the largest provider of natural gas for vehicles in North America. If we all start lining up for natural gas to put in our engines, T. Boone Pickens is going to get a lot richer.

Still, I was intrigued, especially when I found out that the only natural-gas-powered car on the U.S. market, the Honda Civic GX, sells most of its cars in California, where I am based. With the help of NEWSWEEK's veteran automotive correspondent, Keith Naughton, I arranged to test a Honda Civic GX on a working vacation. Our mission: to take the all-American family road trip on all-American natural gas.

With my son, Ben, 9, and my daughter, Sarah, 5, we picked up our Civic GX at Los Angeles International Airport last Monday, with a plan to visit friends in nearby Santa Monica, then head south to my father's place near San Diego, then make the 470-mile drive back up the coast to our home in Oakland, testing the natural-gas fueling infrastructure along the way. According to Honda and the Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy research facility outside Chicago, there are only 1,200 natural-gas fueling stations in the United States (vs. 190,000 for gasoline and diesel). Of those, only about half are open to the public: the rest are reserved for use by government and commercial fleets. Our route along the California coast offered only a few dozen stations to choose from, so advance planning was crucial. We had to plot the range of our tank—about 225 miles—and the distance between CNG fueling stations (a couple of good Web sites for the task: www.cngvc.org and the U.S. Department of Energy's station finder, www.eere.energy.gov/afdc/stations/find-route.php.) The folks at Honda also left me a brochure with locations of California fueling stations in the front seat.

I also found out that not all stations take standard credit cards: in northern California, many of the stations are operated by Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility company. So I had to apply for one of their credit cards (lead time is normally about two to three weeks, though PG&E got me my card in about a week). The most frustrating moment of our trip came after a 300-mile leg from Santa Barbara to the Bay Area. I found a station in industrial Union City, which required a long drive from the freeway (the station guide is vague on this front: the 20-minute drive took us far out of our way.) Once I got there, with darkness falling, it turned out that the credit-card reader was broken. So, no fuel, wasted time—and hungry kids in the back seat. Thankfully, we had enough fuel left to putter into Oakland.

Fueling takes some getting used to. PG&E gave me a lesson on how to do it safely at a CNG station near my office in San Francisco. The nozzle is heavier than the ones we're all accustomed to, and while some pumps functioned smoothly, at times during our road trip I had to wrestle the nozzle loose from the car. The gas is pressurized at 3,600psi, and it makes an unnerving hiss when you disconnect it. Some pumps also are not compressed properly and won't fill the car completely, which can be annoying. PG&E spokeswoman Jill Egbert informs me that the car's tank, which holds the equivalent of 8 gallons, was safety-tested by being dropped off a 10-story building. At each station, we were also subjected to a training video at the pump: we were supposed to receive a code that would allow us to bypass the video at subsequent stations, but it never seemed to work. By the end of the trip, the kids and I were chanting along with the video as we waited for the fueling to start.

A word about packing: a large cylindrical tank fills most of the trunk, leaving about enough space for a set of golf clubs. If you are packing for a family trip, as I was, use several soft bags that can be squished into the spaces around the tank. Given the limitations of the fueling infrastructure—and the crowded trunk—for now Honda recommends the GX as an ideal second car, best for commuting. Based on my experience, it'll be a while before we are all road-tripping on natural gas.

The fun part is paying at the pump. Natural gas is astonishingly cheap. On the day I took my training, it was selling in San Francisco for the equivalent of $2.99 a gallon, versus $4.56 a gallon for regular unleaded. As the price of gas tumbled over the past week, natural gas also came down. At a station near San Diego, where the price of regular gas had fallen to $3.95 a gallon (the first sub-$4 gas I've seen in California since June), an equivalent unit of CNG was $2.57. The cheapest price we paid on our drive north was the equivalent of $2.27 per gallon. And the costs vary widely around the country: one Web site (www.cngprices.com) showed gallon-equivalent prices as low as 85 cents in Utah, and around $1.99 per gallon in New Jersey. In California, where most GX's are sold, the cars come with the coveted diamond sticker, which allows free access to carpool lanes and free tolls on most bridges. (The diamond stickers are so popular that used Toyota Priuses, which once came with the stickers, actually sell for a premium over new ones.)

If you are wondering why it's not so easy to get some of the hooch, consider this: oil companies have no motivation to spend the billions required to convert gasoline stations into natural-gas stations, since natural gas sells for a third to half the cost of gasoline. "Would you invest a lot of money to make your main product lower value?" says Don Hillebrand, director of transportation research at Argonne National Laboratory. "Natural gas is not the silver bullet."

And to get that cheap fuel, you are going to have to pony up for the car. A Honda Civic GX starts at $24,590; a comparable gas-powered Honda Civic LX would cost $16,960. Even if you factor in the $4,000 federal tax credit for buying a natural-gas vehicle, that's a price premium of $3,630. Installing a natural-gas pump in your home garage costs $5,300 to $6,200 (though it will allow you to fill up at home for the equivalent of $1.30 to $2.00 per gallon). There, too, you can earn a federal tax credit of $1,000.

Depending on how much you drive, and where gas prices go, it could take years for the average consumer to realize a payoff on a natural-gas car. Still, according to a Honda spokesman, there are waiting lists at dealerships for the 1,100-odd Honda GX's sold in the U.S. each year (of those, only 612 went to individuals, the rest were sold to fleets). "Demand has increased exponentially, says Todd Mittelman of American Honda. "The major motivators seem to be gas prices and free access to carpool lanes."

There are also environmental considerations. While natural gas is a cleaner fuel than gasoline, it is still a fossil fuel. Environmentalists, including Al Gore, would prefer to transition directly to plug-in hybrids powered by electricity from renewable sources. Pickens agrees plug-in hybrids are the answer, eventually, but in the meantime he views natural gas as a "bridge fuel" that can be used until plug-in technology is economical. The first plug-in hybrids are expected to hit the U.S. market in 2010. Pickens thinks it'll take a couple of decades until gas-powered cars can be replaced completely.

Who knows? Our mission in the Honda GX was to test the natural-gas infrastructure-and have some fun. After our first fill up in Santa Monica ($8.52 for half a tank) we drove south to Fallbrook, Calif., a distance of 198.7 miles in heavy traffic. We filled up again in Oceanside, north of San Diego, at a station outside the gates of a natural-gas-fired power plant. Hint: these stations do not have giant, driver-friendly signs. Even after mapping our destination, we had to search long and hard to find the obscure driveway that led to the fuel pump. Price for our second fill up: $13.44. The stations are spartan—and there are no restrooms. So you will find yourself stopping at standard gas stations for life's little comforts.

We never spent more than $20 for a fill up, and our fuel efficiency ranged from 26-40mpg. The four-cylinder CNG-powered engine labored in steep mountain passes—and generally lacked pickup—but did fine at cruising speeds and in city driving. While I loved zooming past all the fossil fools from the comfort of the diamond lane, the biggest kick for me was coming to work across the normally clogged San Francisco Bay Bridge. Thanks to my virtuous, low-carbon fuel, I got to zoom for free through the toll booth (saving $4 right there) and onto the bridge. Now if it only came with free parking.