Are natural gas-powered vehicles a better alternative for Tanzania?

Tanzania has indicated interest in shifting away from fuel-powered vehicles to natural gas-powered vehicles starting with its buses that ply the Dar es Salaam routes. This move, the East African country says, will cut fuel use by about 50 percent, but are these gas-powered vehicles the best alternative?

Petroleum products (diesel, petrol, kerosene, Jet-A1 and HFO) are among Tanzania’s main imports and fuel is supplied by private companies who are regulated by Tanzania’s Energy and Water Utilities Regulatory Authority (EWURA) who in turn report to the Ministry of Energy.

In 2016, a total of 5.5 billion litres of petroleum products were imported into the country and the price of these petroleum products, especially fuel have been on the increase due to the heavy taxes imposed on them. Even the East African central banks forecast an increase in the prices of goods and services in the second half of 2018, fuelled by the increase in international crude oil price and the planned imposition of taxes on petroleum products.

Unlike petroleum, Tanzania need not import the natural gas needed to power the vehicles. In 2010, the country discovered 25 to 30 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas resources. According to US Geological Survey estimates, the combined gas reserves of Mozambique and Tanzania could be as high as 250 trillion cubic feet.

Natural gas is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas mixture consisting primarily of methane. It is formed when layers of decomposing plant and animal matter are exposed to intense heat and pressure under the surface of the Earth over millions of years.

With the option of importation and the heavy taxes on fuel eliminated when using natural gas-powered vehicles, opting for natural gas vehicles seem like the best bet, especially as they are good when used for high-mileage, centrally fueled fleets. Natural gas powered vehicles are ideal for fleets because refuelling is easier and done in a central location.

Currently there are more than 20 million vehicles in the world running on natural gas, depending on the model, a natural gas-powered vehicle can last about 300 to 800 kilometres. Meanwhile, fuel powered vehicles last up to 860 kilometres depending on the model.

Cost-saving

According to the acting Director General of Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation, Kapuulya Musomba, the use of natural gas would save consumers between 30 to 50 percent of what is usually spent on fuel. A report by the Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation (TPDC) shows that local factories that use natural gas for their daily businesses saved up to Sh2.1 trillion between 2004-2017.

However, to install the natural gas system for the vehicles, a vehicle owner is required to spend between Tsh1.6 million ($701) and Tsh2 million ($875) depending on the size of the vehicle. This amount is only for installations and not the amount to be spent on daily gas budgets for commuting. Also, given that natural gas burns hotter than fuel, hardened seals and valves are needed. To prevent system failures of fuel cars before conversion to natural gas, an additional padding is needed. This gaseous prep would cost roughly $300.

Another issue that might hamper the nationwide use of natural gas vehicles is the cost of creating refuelling infrastructure across the country. However, it’s a good start that the Tanzanian government plan to use fuel filling stations to distribute natural gas. Currently, there is only one natural gas station in Tanzania.

Natural Gas and the Environment

Although natural gas is cleaner in vehicles compared to petroleum, it is highly flammable and toxic to the environment, albeit less toxic than many know fuels.

When fossil fuels are burned, they emit a large amount of harmful gases, including Nitrogen Oxides, Sulphur dioxide, Mercury and particles that drift into the atmosphere and contribute to air pollution.

Natural gas vehicles emit about 30 percent less Carbondioxide than oil, and 45 percent less than coal.

Commuters have begun to bear the brunt of the hike in fuel prices, with an additional Sh100 to Sh250 ($0.11) in additional charges from Tanzania to any destination within East Africa. They will hope that transportation would be cheaper with natural gas-powered vehicles.

Given that electricity (electric cars) is still a big issue in Africa and Tanzania is still battling with fuel hike, it is safe to say that natural gas-powered vehicles are a good alternative in the short and medium-term. However, Africa, like the rest of the world will have to adopt a sustainable means of transportation that will not be harmful to the environment. Bicycles? Maybe horses, anyone?