Natural gas has obvious benefits for large fleet operators
Just one cent. A natural-gas car needs to cost one cent per kilometer less to run than the same diesel model. “That difference could be the ultimate game-changer for this type of fuel,” says Frank Woesthoff of Volkswagen Financial Services.
The Group’s financial services subsidiary has its eyes firmly set on fleet operators, its biggest clients, who will sometimes lease even thousands of vehicles. “And they know exactly what running a fleet of this size costs,” affirms Woesthoff. For this reason, he hopes that more and more fleet customers will switch to natural gas (also known as CNG) – for their own sake.
“So far, natural gas has never really caught on, but we’re about to change all that.”
Volkswagen has big plans for the future. “So far, natural gas has never really caught on, but we’re about to change all that,” says Dr. Jens Andersen. The Group coordinator for natural gas powered mobility has just launched a roadshow in Hamburg. The goal of the event is to raise awareness throughout various German cities in the near future regarding a topic that too few people are familiar with: natural gas is the economical and cleanest alternative to gasoline or diesel fuel. It is, so to speak, the cost-effective key to the energy revolution. Anyone looking for cost-efficient and sustainable driving has to consider natural gas as an option.
For the first time, ten companies have joined forces in this regard. On Volkswagen’s initiative, gas distributors and gas station operators are uniting to highlight the benefits of CNG as a fuel. And the time appears to be ripe, with increasing doubts being cast over the diesel engine and some cities even considering banning diesel vehicles from their streets. That will never happen with CNG-powered cars. “It’s the cleanest combustion engine by some distance; all other fuels produce more pollutants than CNG,” says Dr. Andersen.
The industry-led initiative has the following objectives: to double the number of natural gas service stations to 2,000 within a few years and achieve a tenfold increase in the number of natural gas vehicles on the road (to one million) by 2025.
To make that happen, the vehicles need to be appealing. And the brands of the Volkswagen Group offer several new models. The 14 CNG-powered vehicle models include the Audi A5 and A4 and best-sellers like the Golf, Skoda Octavia and Seat Leon. The VW Polo, too, will soon be available with a natural-gas engine.
The Group wants to make the switch to natural gas as easy as possible for its fleet customers and is working on several innovative concepts. One option under discussion is a kind of flat-rate solution. At the start of the leasing period, the user will book a specific number of kilometers at a fixed price, which covers everything – fuel and maintenance included. “So the customer knows exactly what the car’s running costs will be over the initial three years,” says financial expert Woesthoff. That would be a revolutionary development within the industry as it would create certainty in terms of financial planning.
The environmental benefit is another convincing argument for fleet operators, who are often called upon to justify their actions before employees and shareholders alike, who increasingly demand sustainable business practices. CNG vehicles can help them to achieve this goal.
This is even more true in light of the fact that diesels, hitherto the vehicle of choice of frequent drivers, are being threatened with driving bans in cities, something which may well hit their resale values. Owners of CNG vehicles will not have to worry about that. Another positive factor in this context is the German government’s recent announcement that it plans to extend the substantial energy-tax exemption applicable to natural gas up to 2026. By that time, the production of regenerative CNG may have advanced to such an extent that running a car on CNG will be virtually emission-free.
"Anyone looking to save money has to consider CNG as an option"
Jens Andersen, Head of Technology Strategy and Management and responsible for Natural Gas Mobility at the Volkswagen Group, explains the opportunities of alternative fuel.
Mr Andersen, natural-gas cars have been known for a long time. Why is Volkswagen pushing this type of drive now?
CNG is an important part of the Group's drive strategy for passenger cars and commercial vehicles. By 2025, we want to be operating a quarter of our cars electrically, but three quarters will still be using an internal combustion engine. There has been considerable progress in CNG technology recently. Our current natural gas drives have turbochargers. This means that they are just as powerful and easy to handle as gasoline-powered engines. They have important advantages compared to other internal combustion engines: significantly lower pollutant emissions and lower operating costs.
Who should seriously consider purchasing a vehicle fitted with a CNG drive?
If you want to make a quick change that will help towards protecting the environment and save money, but not forgo comfort, you really have to consider natural gas as an option. We have therefore developed a whole series of new CNG models that are just coming onto the market. And in all volume brands. There are currently 14 different CNG models by Volkswagen, Audi, SEAT, and ŠKODA. More are in the pipeline.
What should customers expect from such a car?
These drives impress with their smooth running and cost effectiveness. Anyone who chooses natural gas no longer has to forgo power or comfort. There is a 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine as well as two four-cylinder engines: a 1.4-liter and a 2.0-liter version for the Audi models. All were specially designed for the CNG drive. In addition, the cars still have fuel tanks in case the distance to the next natural gas filling station is too far.
However, the reduction in pollutants when natural gas is consumed in the Golf, for example, is not spectacular: 103 grams of CO2 per kilometer with CNG compared to 123 grams for gasoline engines.
This is true if we are talking about a pure driving mode using only fossil natural gas that has been extracted in a conventional manner. However, we are looking at the entire life cycle of a car: from its manufacture and fuel production to consumption. And it's here that CNG performs much better than gasoline or diesel. If you use regenerative energy, it's actually unbeatable.
What type of energy do you mean?
I'm talking about biogas or e-gas, which are obtained through fermentation or with the aid of wind power. Vegetable scraps or even manure from agriculture are fermented to produce methane. This is fed into the general natural gas network. E-gas, on the other hand, is generated by wind. Audi is already operating a pilot plant. Here too, CNG is fed into the grid – and in this way there are almost zero emissions during production and consumption. This is by far the cleanest internal combustion engine.
The advantages are obvious. So why is it that we've been so unaware of CNG up to now?
There needs to be better word of mouth about the benefits for the environment and the lower price. Costs are particularly important for professional vehicle fleet operators. They could save a lot of money by using our modern CNG cars, especially since diesel engines are becoming ever more expensive due to strict emission regulations. There are also large countries like Brazil or India, where electrification will take much longer than here. Until then, CNG is a convincing technology which can be used to address the major emission problems of cities. This also applies to buses and trucks: we also offer low-emission natural gas variants.
Why is Volkswagen working with other companies for its CNG campaign?
Our interests complement each other and we can join forces to promote natural gas drives much more intensively. CNG mobility is not only important for us as an automobile manufacturer. The car is also becoming more and more interesting as a consumer for the natural gas industry. That is why we have now forged a broad alliance with energy suppliers, gas station operators, and grid companies as part of our "TOGETHER – Strategy 2025". Together, we want to finally promote the topic properly. By 2025, there should be one million cars with CNG drives on our roads, ten times more than today, and around 2000 CNG filling stations nationwide.
Interview: Susanne Frank
Dr. Jens Andersen, 54, has been working at the Volkswagen Group for more than 25 years. The mechanical engineer and PhD holder is responsible for managing new technologies. In this role, he is also the Group representative for natural gas mobility. Previously, Dr. Andersen was responsible, among other things, for the technical management of all passenger car projects under the Volkswagen brand. His former areas of activity also included the management of powertrain strategy development.
The enthusiastic motorcyclist wants to promote CNG drives using completely new ideas. This includes a "flat rate" for commercial fleet operators. These could soon being leasing CNG company cars at a fixed rate per kilometer. Fuel, maintenance, and rental would already be included – and the price per kilometer should be more favorable than with diesel engines.