This week, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced $30 million in funding for 13 research projects across the country relating to advanced natural gas vehicle technologies. The distribution of the grants will be overseen by ARPA-E’s newest program, Methane Opportunities for Vehicular Energy, or “MOVE.” There has been considerable debate over just how cleaner natural gas is relative to other fossil fuels as an energy source – a recent study by Nathan Myhrvold and Ken Caldeira, for example, contends that when accounting for the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of building and running natural gas plants, switching en masse from coal to natural gas “would have zero effect on global temperatures by the year 2100.” Nevertheless, just as fuel-switching from coal to natural gas-based electricity is marginally reducing emissions in the United States now, natural gas vehicles hold some promise as alternatives to conventional gas cars and government support is key to further innovation.
While natural gas vehicles are not a mid or long-term solution to reducing global carbon emissions, they do produce greenhouse gas emissions roughly 15-30 percent lower than gasoline-fueled vehicles. Modest to be sure. But even for these modest emission cuts to be a consistent reality, significant innovations in natural gas vehicle technology is required. That’s where ARPA-E comes in. By developing more efficient tank and refueling technologies, ARPA-E’s awardees aim to solve natural gas storage problems, decrease vehicle weight to boost efficiency, and significantly cut costs.
And the need for public investments in natural gas vehicle innovations simply follows the history of government-supported innovation that is resulting in cheap natural gas supplies today. As ITIF noted in a previous blog post, “the advanced natural gas technologies used today to give us shale gas – ‘fracking’ being the most discussed – were the product of decades of government support in partnership with the private sector,” which is a telling indication of the fundamental role the government plays in driving energy innovation – even in fossil fuel technology. ARPA-E’s work to advance not only natural gas vehicles, but a host of other energy technologies, is thus a very welcome effort.
To be sure, natural gas cars cannot compare with battery electric vehicles or other low-carbon transportation options that have absolutely no tailpipe emissions. But they are nonetheless attractive as a short-term solution that marginally reduces transportation emissions while other low-carbon technologies ramp up.
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