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Natural gas gaining in transportation industry

DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. said Tuesday it sold a record 11,600 natural gas vehicles in the 2012 model year year, more than four times the number it sold two years ago.

It’s the latest sign that natural gas is making inroads as a transportation fuel, particularly for truck fleets, buses, and taxis. The consumer market is tougher to crack, but sales are gaining there as well.

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Natural gas is cheap and plentiful in the United States after a spike in production that began in the middle of last decade. At the same time, the price of gasoline and diesel fuel has jumped more than 30 percent.

That makes natural gas — which also emits fewer greenhouse gases — an increasingly attractive option for truck companies and municipalities.

But while natural gas may be a good choice for snowplows and trash trucks, which go relatively short distances and can refuel at city-owned pumps, it is a tougher call for ordinary consumers. Natural gas cars cost more, and there are few public places to refuel them. Those issues need to be addressed if the vehicles are to significantly boost their share of the auto market, which is currently less than 1 percent.

General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group recently added natural gas pickup trucks to their lineups. Honda Motor Co. is seeing more interest in its natural gas Civic — with record US sales of nearly 2,000 last year — and industry specialists expect more offerings for regular buyers in the next year or two.

Natural gas vehicles aren’t new. Ford’s previous peak sales, of 5,491, were in 2001. But they fell out when the price of natural gas spiked. Ford stopped selling natural gas vehicles in 2004 and didn’t start making them again until 2009.

During those five years, new technology unlocked vast reserves of natural gas in deep rock formations, creating a glut that has depressed prices. Compressed natural gas now costs between $1.79 to $3.49 per gallon in the United States depending on the location, compared with an average of $3.74 for gasoline and $4.12 for diesel, according to Clean Energy, which operates natural gas fueling stations, and AAA.

GE, which is currently developing a home fueling station, estimates there are 250,000 natural gas vehicles currently in use in the United States.

Dave Hurst, a principal research analyst with Pike Research estimates that 20,381 natural gas vehicles were sold in the United States in 2012.

He expects natural gas vehicle sales to grow by 10 percent per year through 2019, when he’s forecasting sales of 39,864. In a market where 16 million new cars and trucks are sold each year, that’s still less than 1 percent. But Hurst expects to see steady demand from governments and other fleet buyers and new offerings to meet those demands. For example, Ford plans to release a natural gas version of its Lincoln MKT crossover — which is sold to limousine companies — in 2014.

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