One of the main hindrances limiting adoption of alternative-fuel vehicles is a phenomenon known as “range anxiety.”
Most alternative fuel vehicles cannot travel as far as traditional gasoline-powered cars and trucks, and they face the limitation of far fewer opportunities to refill or recharge.
When I bought a natural-gas powered car in April, I wrote that a dedicated natural-gas vehicle is a commuter car and is not a good fit for cross-country driving because there are relatively few stations throughout the country.
After the column was published, I received several calls, emails and comments from people who disagreed with my assessment. Several said they had driven dedicated CNG vehicles to Florida, Chicago and other parts of the country.
I have been anxious about venturing out too far, mainly because of range anxiety — if I were to run out of gas, I couldn't just walk to the next corner, fill up a small red tank and return to my car. Instead, I'd have to have my car towed to the nearest CNG station, which outside of Oklahoma tend to be at least 150 miles apart.
My 2009 natural gas-powered Honda Civic holds only eight gasoline gallons equivalent, but it rarely fills completely. Unlike traditional gasoline pumps, CNG pumps fill based on pressure. My tank can handle up to 3,600 PSI, but if a pump recently has made a large fill or otherwise is not at full pressure, I could receive about a gallon less.
My car has an estimated fuel economy of 24 miles per gallon in the city and 36 miles per gallon on the highway. I had been told that when driving long distances on the highway, I could expect at least 250 miles per tank.
I was skeptical.
But I tried it out this weekend, when we took the Civic out of state for the first time on our way to Six Flags in Arlington, Texas.
Oklahoma is third behind California and New York for the number of public CNG stations. It's safe to travel throughout much of the state. But there are no refueling options between the Red River and Dallas.
So just before crossing into Texas, I stopped to top off my tank at the Chickasaw Travel Stop on Exit 1 between the casinos.
The station features a large, clean, high-pressure CNG terminal, but it's not so easy to get to it. The gasoline and diesel pumps are on the corner. The CNG pumps can be seen from the front, but to get there, drivers have to weave through the casino parking lot.
I had more than a half tank when I stopped, but I felt better leaving the state with plenty of fuel. I used about a third of a tank to make it the rest of the way to Arlington.
At the end of the day, we stopped by a Clean Energy CNG pump at a Valero station about a mile from Six Flags. The California company cofounded by T. Boone Pickens and partially supported by Chesapeake Energy Corp. is the only company in the metroplex to provide CNG to the public.
The pump worked well and had high pressure, but the fuel cost at least $1 per gallon equivalent more than almost every station in Oklahoma. But at $2.24, I still saved more than $1 per gallon over gasoline.
After topping off in Arlington, we headed home and my family quickly fell asleep. I drove 198 miles nonstop to my home and still had about one-fifth of a tank left, leaving me about 40 to 50 miles until empty.
While the trip was hardly cross-country, it showed me that it is possible to get about 250 miles on one tank. That knowledge opens up much of the eastern half of the country, as CNG stations are spaced about 200 to 225 miles apart.
For now, however, I still can't go west or through the northern Plains.