Wu Xiao’s Volkswagen Santana is outdated even for the hinterlands of western China. But the civil engineer from Chengdu in Sichuan province praises the vehicle’s reliability. This virtue came about after Wu’s car was converted into a dual fuel vehicle, running off gasoline and compressed natural gas (CNG).
This is the fuel of choice for 80% of Chengdu’s buses as well as a growing number of private cars and taxis.
“The Santana is a car that I could drive for another couple of years,” he said. “The only problem is that the monthly expenses are going up.”
A gallon of mid-grade gasoline costs US$2.70 in Chengdu, compared with about US$0.25 for a cubic meter of CNG. Eleven cubic meters of CNG generates roughly the same amount of power as 10 liters of gasoline.
“If you drive 100 kilometers in a day, it could save about RMB25 (US$3.30). You do the math. Plus the car is virtually emission-free,” Wu said.
Bearing in mind Chengdu’s average annual disposable income in 2006 was US$1,705, CNG represents a significant saving.
Using gas as car fuel is not a new concept in China. In the 1960s and 1970s, most buses in major cities were powered by a huge black bag of natural (uncompressed) gas on the roof.
New technologies, government funding and promotion are helping China rediscover the old energy, which, while not renewable, may offer a cost-efficient solution to deep-seated environmental problems.
Western China is taking the lead on this thanks to rich natural gas deposits in mountainous areas.
The success of CNG represents a remarkable environmental turnaround for Chengdu, which in the 1990s was dismissed as a potential base for General Motors in China. Company executives were so unhappy with the city’s air quality that they took their money to Shanghai instead.
In nearby Chongqing, which also has a poor environmental reputation, a network of CNG fueling stations is being built, and CNG may be used in the city’s public transport system.
The Citroën Elysée, the first dual fuel (gasoline and CNG) car specifically designed for the Chinese family market, was launched in September 2005 at a Chengdu auto expo. At the end of 2006, Chinese domestic auto manufacturer Chery rolled out its own dual fuel model to great fanfare.
While Chengdu and Chongqing have been rushing to shift from oil to CNG, the lack of supporting infrastructure in other cities means switching may be more trouble than it is worth. Taxi drivers, for example, are likely to find savings on fuel costs outweighed by having to wait hours for CNG deliveries.
“Once I waited four hours in a queue of 600 cars, and after that I just gave up on CNG,” said one driver in Xi’an.
More gas may help the situation. A 4,000-kilometer gas pipeline from the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang should boost supplies to the Yangtze River Delta region.
Shanghai already has CNG buses, but they don’t qualify for state subsidies and are US$13,000 more expensive than their diesel counterparts. In contrast, Beijing’s CNG bus network is set for a rapid build-out. The government sees CNG as a key part of its efforts to deliver a green Olympics.