You see a lot of these Natural Power badges on FIATs in Italy; they indicate that the car or small truck is a dual-fuel vehicle running on natural gas and gasoline. It's FIAT's big bet on the future of alternative fuels, and it is looking like a smart one.
I was one of a group of writers visiting the Centro Ricerche FIAT just outside of Turin, Italy, guests of the Italian Institute for Foreign Trade and Machines Italia. It's their high-security research facility (they even have little red stickers to cover the lenses on your iPhone cameras) where they are cooking up the future of FIAT.
We at TreeHugger can talk until we are blue in the face (and we do) that Natural gas is far less green than claimed, or that Increased use of natural gas will make climate change worse, not better. But the fact of it is, the entire alternative energy industry has been blindsided by the sudden glut of locally sourced natural gas. Where Toyota and others have put their money on gas-electric hybrids and pure battery plays, FIAT put all their eggs in compressed natural gas (CNG). General Manager Stefano Re Fiorentin dismisses electrics:
The electric car still has some sustainability problems, not from the environmental point of view but from the social and economic point of view, because the ranges are too limited, recharging times are too long, and cost too high.
Indeed, he claims that a hybrid costs about $9,000 more than a conventional gas powered car, a battery-electric about $ 21,000 more, while a CNG car will only cost about $ 4,000 more. With current gas prices, it only takes about two years to pay that off.
These cars are not like the CNG conversions that we used to see a lot of in Canada; in those, the whole trunk was filled up with the tank and they got lousy range. The Natural Power line of FIATs have smaller, lightweight tanks under the floor, and a small gasoline tank that takes the range up to about six hundred miles on a complete dual fillup.
They have been very careful in the design of the filling mechanism to make it as painless as filling with gasoline. The gas is already piped all over cities, so it isn't a huge infrastructure investment to add it to gas stations. Re Fiorentin calls CNG "a strategic asset that supports progressive migration from fossil fuels to biomethane and hydrogen from renewable resources" and already has tested cars that run on 30% hydrogen with no technological changes.
The engines are small and efficient; the Panda on sale now has a 1.2 litre engine, but we saw teensy new ones that pack the same power into a two cylinder, 875cc, 110 horsepower engine that looked like I could pick it up and stick in my shoulder bag. They are clean, too, emitting 25% less CO2, almost no particulates, while ozone, NOX, and aromatics are all reduced anywhere from 23 percent to 90 percent. Maintenance costs are reduced, to, because there are almost no carbon residues in the engine.
The cars are light, relatively inexpensive, technologically not much different than conventional vehicles, and the driver doesn't have to give up much, not even trunk space like one used to with CNG cars. Given that North America is awash in natural gas, it seems to me that FIAT's bet is going to seriously pay off.
Re Fiorentin claims that "personal mobility will continue to be a 'must" for society"; I am not sure he is right. Nor can we forget that natural gas is still a fossil fuel with a carbon footprint, and that getting it through hydraulic fracturing has its own set of environmental costs. (See all the horror stories in the related links to the left) But I saw an awful lot of cute little cars with Natural Power labels bombing down the highways between Milan and Turin, and what a difference it would make if they were doing that in North America.