Honda Civic Natural Gas Has Green Rewards, Challenges

The top-line Civic Natural Gas has a satellite-Linked navigation system that includes a database of public-accessible fueling stations.

Honda has sold a natural-gas powered Civic since 1998, but it will make a bigger push this year to put more of these alt-fuel compacts in more garages.

Commercial fleets and utilities are the biggest users of natural-gas vehicles, which evolved as one remedy to meet air-quality mandates. Honda is the only major automaker to offer a retail vehicle powered by compressed natural gas. Its Civic Natural Gas (renamed this year from GX) uses a modified version of the standard Civic’s 110-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. It is the cleanest internal-combustion engine tested by the EPA and federally certified as an “Inherently Low Emission Vehicle” for zero evaporative emissions. The majority of compressed natural gas used in the U.S. is produced and refined here. And the car is built in Greensburg, Ind.

Along with the “green” rewards of ownership are other incentives. Natural gas prices range from $1.86 to $2.99 per “gallon,” and a full tank (about the equivalent of eight gallons of gasoline) is capable of 190 to more than 200 miles. That doesn’t compare to the gasoline-powered Civic’s 300-plus range, but it is much farther than most electric cars. And fueling in public is somewhat easier. There are eight stations in San Diego County that pump CNG, and there is an option for a home-fueling station — and the home rate for natural gas is less than at the public pumps, a Honda spokesman said.

Fuel economy is 1 mpg less than for the standard Civic: 27 mpg city, 38 highway and 31 combined. But the bigger incentive for this Civic is that it qualifies for single-occupant, carpool lane stickers in California.

Honda sells a couple thousand a year and has upped availability this year to 197 dealers in 36 states, which are mostly in the West, Southwest and Southeastern states. Extreme cold — below minus-four degrees — can cause starting problems and can create fueling issues, such as leaks.

Sold in two trim levels, pricing starts at $27,095, including the $790 freight charge from Greensburg, Ind. The top-line model — $28,595 — adds voice-operated navigation that will highlight CNG stations and other points of interest. The pricing is about $5,600 more than a gasoline Civic, but the EPA estimates that a nat-gas driver will save $7,350 in fuel costs over five years of ownership.

The CNG engine has 110 horsepower compared to 140-hp in the gasoline Civic. Performance around town is good. Interstate merging requires a heavy foot, but cruising at 65 mph and higher is easygoing. The five-speed automatic will keep giving downshifts to get the job done as demanded by the driver.

Under the skin, the driving experience is Civic civil. Good seats, good sightlines and roomy for a compact with a comfy ride. But there is some noticeable reflection of the dashboard top in the windshield and the audio unit has small buttons.

The compromise in CNG is providing space for the tank that has to be strong enough to contain 3,600 pounds per square inch of pressurized gas. In the Civic, the reinforced CNG tank takes about half the trunk space, leaving 6 cubic feet. That’s enough for many grocery bags but not large parcels. And the reinforced tank adds about 90 pounds over the standard Civic’s curb weight.

As with a diesel-powered car, the owner will learn the locations of nearby fueling stations. And if one isn’t close to home or work, the incentive tends to fade, or it would for me.

There is a learning experience for the first time fueling, mostly because two stations had broken pumps. The fueling process isn’t difficult, and a video at the pump is fairly explanatory. Basically, attach and lock the high-pressure hose and flip the lever on the pump. There is a loud air lock, and the fueling begins in surges.

For those with smartphones or tablets, www.cngprices.com lists stations and pricing.

The owner of a Civic powered by natural gas makes a choice to be different and to do his or her part for cleaner air. And that person can drive with just a little more swagger when passing that car consuming imported oil.

2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas

—Body style: compact, 5-passenger front-wheel drive sedan

—Engine: aluminum 110-hp, SOHC, 16-valve i-VTEC 4-cylinder; 106 foot-pounds torque at 4,200 rpm

—Transmission: 5-speed automatic

—Estimated fuel mileage: 27/38 mpg city/hwy

—CNG tank: 8 gallons gasoline equivalent

—Wheelbase/length: 106.3/177.3 inches

—Front head/leg/shoulder room: 39/4256.6/ inches

—Rear head/leg/shoulder room: 37.1/36.2/53.3 inches

—Curb weight: 2,848 to 2,855 pounds

—Cargo capacity: 6 cubic feet

—Standard equipment: navigation with voice recognition, remote locking, 4-speaker audio system with USB-satellite radio, Bluetooth phone connection, air conditioning with filter, height-adjustable driver’s seat, floor mats, cruise control, 12-volt outlet, tilt-telescopic steering wheel, power windows-mirrors-locks, map lights, trunk light, Eco assist

—Safety equipment: 6 air bags, ABS, brake-force distribution, brake assist, stability assist

—Base price: $28,595, including $790 freight charge

—Options on test car: none

—Where assembled: Greensburg, Ind.

—Competition: none

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Mark Maynard, Creators Syndicate

Mark Maynard has been the automotive editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper since 1992. His work puts him behind the wheel of nearly 200 vehicles a year for review and competitive comparison. Attending manufacturer's new-vehicle press conferences keeps him abreast of the hottest new vehicles and technological advancements. He has graduated from several performance and off-highway driving courses and has spent seat time with influential car designers, engineers and race drivers. He also has a twice-monthly Internet Web cast, "Wheels on the Web," that can be viewed at www.uniontrib.com. He has been a regular guest host on a local automotive radio show and has appeared on television for automotive issues. He owns a 1987 Chevy Suburban 4WD and a 1968 VW bus.

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Why Texas Is Using More Coal, Wind and Less Gas

When Texans turn on their lights, run their air conditioning or plug in their iPads, they are getting an increasing amount of power from the wind — and from coal plants.

Figures released earlier this month show that last year, nearly 8 percent of the power on the state’s electric grid was generated by wind. That’s more than three times the national average. And because Texas recently added several coal-generating units, coal plants — for the first time in recent memory — produced more power than any other electricity source. Nuclear power’s contribution held about steady, at 13 percent of generation.

The big loser was natural gas. While natural gas is abundant in Texas, less polluting than coal and substantially cheaper than it was jut a few years ago, it is also easily replaced by the wind. The percentage of power on the grid generated from natural gas dropped from 42 percent in 2009 to 38 percent in 2010; coal, at 39.5 percent, slightly edged it out. Since at least 1990, natural gas has generated more electricity than coal in Texas, according to the Energy Information Administration (whose figures differ slightly from those of the Texas grid, which covers most but not all of the state and whose numbers go back only to 2002).

Hot weather and the recovering economy caused Texans to use more power overall. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the operator of the state’s grid, reported that electricity usage rose by 3.5 percent in 2010, slightly less than the 4 percent rise nationally.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Texas figures centers on the relationship between natural gas and wind power.

Wind-generated power has been growing rapidly in the state; Texas has nearly three times as much wind capacity in place as the next-closest state, Iowa, and broke the 10,000 megawatt barrier for the first time last year, the American Wind Energy Association reported Monday. The recent growth (from 6.2 percent of the Texas grid’s generation in 2009 to 7.8 percent last year) came despite well-documented transmission-line constraints in West Texas, home to the vast majority of the state’s wind capacity. There, some wind turbines sometimes get shut down even when the wind is blowing, because there is not enough room on the wires to move the power to the big cities hundreds of miles away that need it.

Much of the new wind has come from a different part of Texas — along the Gulf coast in the south, especially Kenedy and San Patricio counties. Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Public Utility Commission, says there are now about 1,100 megawatts of wind in ERCOT’s south zone. That translates to roughly one-ninth of the total wind capacity in Texas.

In addition, a transmission line built by NextEra Energy Resources, a Florida-based renewables company, connected an enormous wind farm in Kendall and Taylor counties to the grid. That line began operating in fall of 2009, so the wind farm’s contribution showed up more fully last year. (The state has planned $5 billion worth of other transmission lines to remedy the congestion in West Texas; the NextEra line, however, is a “private” line not built as part of the state’s process.)

“Obviously the wind is impacting gas,” said John Fainter, the president of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas. Wind goes onto the grid before natural gas because the “fuel” of the wind is free, unlike that of natural gas plants — so it costs nothing to add more wind to the grid, when the wind is available. Gas units are also relatively easy to turn on and off — making it a good complement to the vagaries of wind power. In recent years, too, “A number of natural gas plants have been retired or mothballed,” said Smitherman of the utility commission. For example NRG, a large energy-generation company that also owns Reliant Energy, said it had recently mothballed some of its natural gas units from the 1950s — meaning that they will stay turned off unless summertime demand spikes.

The long-term drop in the share of natural gas on the Texas grid — as recently as 2002, gas accounted for 46 percent — contrasts to the rest of the country. Nationally, reliance on gas has increased (from 18 percent in 2002 to 23 percent in 2009), while the share of coal generation has dropped, from 50 percent in 2002 to 45 percent in 2009. The reasons for this difference are rooted in history: Decades ago, Texas depended nearly entirely on natural gas for its electricity while many other states built coal plants in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and are now starting to retire them, said John Ragan, the president of the Texas region for NRG.

Texas did not begin building coal plants until the 1970s and 1980s, Ragan said — so while some of natural gas plants here may be older and closer to retirement, Texas’ coal generators are newer and sturdier compared with the rest of the nation. A few existing coal plants in Bexar County and Milam County recently added capacity, and the Texas power-generation giant Luminant began operating units at a major new coal plant called Oak Grove in Robertson County in 2009 and 2010. The operators say the new coal plants have state-of-the-art technology to reduce conventional emissions (like mercury), although none of the plants will capture carbon dioxide and store it underground, something environmentalists would like coal plants to do in the future.

Natural gas could regain some of its share in the future, however. Texas will need more new plants, because its overall electric use will continue to rise as the population grows and gadgets continue to proliferate. Electricity use on the Texas grid at peak hours — meaning hot summer afternoons — is projected to increase by 37 percent by 2030.

“Any new construction is probably going to be more likely to be gas,” said Fainter, citing the speed at which gas plants can be built and the low cost of natural gas relative to a few years ago.

Coal plants, which are under fire from environmentalists unless they put in expensive new technologies to capture and bury carbon dioxide, may be tough to build in the future, even though some proposed ones have recently gotten permits.

The gas industry has talked of trying to shift more costs to wind to make up for the wind’s intermittency, arguing that other types of power plants pay penalties if they go offline unexpectedly, but wind is allowed to come and go in accordance with the whims of nature. However, Fainter said, “our guys are not talking about any particular legislation right now on changing the dynamics.”

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst recently offered support for gas. Citing environmental concerns as well as the need to take full advantage of Texas’ abundant natural-gas supplies, he has proposed phasing out old coal plants and replacing them with gas-fired generation. Tom “Smitty” Smith, the Texas head of the environmental advocacy group Public Citizen, said he endorsed this idea.

Meanwhile, wind will continue to grow. Smitherman noted that the state-planned $5 billion transmission line build-out, which is proceeding, should nearly double the wind-energy capacity that’s currently on the Texas grid.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://trib.it/hL6tJz.

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Kate Galbraith, The Texas Tribune

Kate Galbraith reported on clean energy for The New York Times from 2008 to 2009; during that time she was a lead writer for the Times's Green blog. Kate began her career at The Economist in 2000 and spent 2005 to 2007 in Austin as the magazine's Southwest correspondent. She was a Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University in 2007-8. She has an undergraduate degree in English from Harvard and a master's degree from The London School of Economics.

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