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07-06-2024 | Gas | In the Spotlight | Article

Natural Gas Cars in Crisis

Author: Christiane Köllner

5:30 min reading time

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According to the ADAC, the natural gas car is at risk of being a total economic loss. No new CNG-powered cars are currently available. But does gas mobility have a chance in heavy goods vehicles?

Some time ago, the CNG drive was actually considered the option for sustainable mobility. This is because natural gas has a number of advantages over petrol and diesel fuels. For example, a car powered by natural gas emits “around 24% less CO2 than a petrol car with the same power”, explain the Springer authors led by Timm Kehler in the german book chapter The market for natural gas as a fuel. A vehicle powered by bio natural gas even reduces CO2 emissions by up to 97%. Natural gas also burns with lower emissions than petrol or diesel. The exhaust gas contains significantly less carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, and the proportion of soot or particulate matter is minimal. There is also a lot to be said for natural gas as a fuel from an economic point of view: CNG costs only around half as much as diesel or petrol.

Volkswagen launched a “natural gas offensive” in 2018, as it was called at the time: the Wolfsburg-based company fundamentally overhauled its natural gas models and equipped the Polo and Golf TGI with a third natural gas tank, among other things. The 1.5 TGI evo natural gas engine celebrated its world premiere at the 2018 Vienna Motor Symposium and was described as “an important building block in a natural gas offensive”. The declared aim was to “further increase the volume of natural gas engines that operate efficiently and largely without particulate emissions”, according to Volkswagen. Fiat and Opel also had several CNG models in their portfolios, Mercedes once launched a natural gas version of the B-Class and Ford the Focus CNG.

Sharp Drop in Demand for CNG Cars

And now? Over the years, demand for cars that can run on compressed natural gas (CNG for short) has plummeted. According to the Federal Motor Transport Authority, there are just over 77,000 cars powered by natural gas on German roads. According to the ADAC, no new cars with this drive system are currently available. The number of CNG filling stations has also been steadily declining since 2016. Around 700 of them were in operation in Germany at the beginning of 2024.

According to the ADAC, owners of a CNG-powered car have fewer and fewer opportunities to refuel and sometimes have to make long detours to the nearest filling station. To make matters worse, spare parts are becoming less and less available. “Because spare parts are expensive or no longer available at all, this can lead to a total economic loss”, warns Florian Hördegen, Head of Vehicle Technology at the ADAC Technical Center Landsberg. 

Preference for Electromobility

There are many reasons for the decline in gas technology: at Volkswagen, it was the focus on the electric-only strategy from 2020 under the then VW Group CEO Herbert Diess. In addition, “a clear preference for electric and hybrid drives can be seen in the transport sector, which is why the industry is also giving priority to these technologies”, as the industry association “Zukunft Gas” explains. The lack of support from politicians is also reflected in the fact that car manufacturers cannot count biogas towards their CO2 fleet balance. In addition, demand is weak, which is partly due to the slightly higher purchase costs for a natural gas car.

The low demand also means that natural gas filling stations cannot be operated economically. Shell and Aral have reduced the number of stations. “Charging stations are likely to take the place of CNG fuel, which is no longer profitable at many locations,” predicts the ADAC. In the summer of 2023, the EU Parliament adopted a law on the mandatory expansion of the charging infrastructure for electric cars in Europe by 2026. As a result, filling station operators are likely to focus consistently on electromobility in the future.

The promotion of e-cars also had an impact on gas models. There are no direct tax concessions for CNG vehicles, as there are for electric vehicles. Natural gas (CNG) as an alternative fuel is tax-privileged until the end of 2026 due to its advantages in terms of CO2 emissions. However, since January 1, 2024, a gradual reduction in tax benefits has begun.

ADAC: Maintain CNG Filling Stations and Spare Parts Supply

The ADAC advocates maintaining a nationwide network of CNG filling stations and the supply of spare parts, at least in the medium term. This would not only be desirable in terms of consumer protection, but also climate protection: in the ADAC Ecotest, which rates cars according to their environmental compatibility, models with natural gas drives have regularly outperformed their petrol and diesel competitors. In terms of their CO2 balance, some of them are even as good as electric cars. This is mainly due to the addition of biomethane, which is produced by fermenting liquid manure, food waste and renewable raw materials such as maize and grass.

But despite all the advantages, CNG vehicles appear to be a discontinued model. It is currently unlikely that car manufacturers will bring new models with CNG engines onto the market.

A Ray of Hope for Heavy Trucks? 

But gas mobility is not quite at an end. In contrast to the CNG infrastructure, the filling station infrastructure for LNG, i.e. liquefied natural gas, has been further expanded in recent times, as the industry association “Zukunft Gas” explains. While there were 103 LNG filling stations in December 2022, there were already 148 a year later. There are now 185 LNG filling stations nationwide (as of November 2023).

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) or biogas (bio-LNG) is a popular alternative fuel, especially for heavy goods vehicles over 12 tons. As of January 1, 2023, there were a total of 1,170 heavy-duty trucks over 12 tons in the fleet, an increase of 67.95% compared to the previous year. There were 4,629 tractor units in the fleet on the reporting date, an increase of 49.3% compared to the previous year. 

Dampener for the Transport Sector Too

Many logistics companies and freight forwarders are turning to the alternative fuel LNG. “Above all, the prospect of increasing quantities of bio-LNG, i.e. liquefied biogas, makes gas vehicles attractive for companies,” says “Zukunft Gas”. Bio-LNG production plants are already in the market ramp-up phase. For example, Shell recently commissioned a new plant for the production of bio-LNG at the Energy and Chemicals Park Rheinland. The plant can produce around 100,000 tons of the lower-CO2 fuel per year. This could be used to refuel 4,000 to 5,000 LNG trucks per year. Erdgas Südwest is also working on a biogas liquefaction project.

However, there are also setbacks for the transport industry: Bio-LNG is not recognized as a climate-friendly drive type in the newly introduced CO2 component of the truck toll. Only trucks with battery or hydrogen drives are exempt from the toll. And on December 1, 2023, an additional CO2 surcharge was introduced to the user charge. Rising freight costs and tolls are therefore a burden on the logistics industry. Nevertheless, the European Parliament has decided to include bio-LNG-powered trucks in the future regulatory framework for CO2 fleet limits.

This is a partly automated translation of this german article.

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