It’s the classic chicken-and-egg puzzle: To what extent does a widespread network of filling stations need to be established offering compressed- and liquefied-natural gas in order for a mass market of vehicles using these alternative fuels to develop?

It is a difficult question, but creation of such networks globally would help sales of CNG/LNG-powered vehicles, and standardizing fuel-station operations would make such facilities easier to use.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) now is getting involved, setting up a new technical committee to develop standards for natural-gas fueling stations.

The committee, identified as ISO/PC 252, will coordinate technical experts from the energy and transport industries in developing standards for delivering CNG and LNG to motorists. These include fuel station design, construction, operation, equipment, safety devices and maintenance.

Recognizing the dynamics of this auto industry subsector and the need for such alternative fuels, the committee has given itself just two years to create the standards. This is fast work for the ISO, which proceeds by consensus.

“With growing concerns about the security and availability of the oil supply, air pollution and greenhouse gases, more and more vehicles are being developed and manufactured to run on CNG and LNG,” committee chairman Martin Seifert says.

“However, despite their many advantages, CNG and LNG vehicles are restricted by the limited infrastructure available for delivery and distribution at fueling stations.”

As a result, natural-gas-powered vehicles have not caught on in the more mature regions and, instead, tend to be more common in emerging markets.

The International Association for Natural Gas Vehicles says there were at least 11 million natural-gas vehicles (NGV) on the world’s roads in December 2009, with 16,513 service stations offering LNG and CNG.

Both are most common in Pakistan, with 2.3 million vehicles and 3,068 filling stations; Argentina, with 1.8 million vehicles and 1,851 stations; Iran, with 1.6 million vehicles and 1,021 stations; and Brazil, with 1.6 million vehicles and 1,704 stations.

By contrast, Europe, whose governments like to claim the high ground when it comes to environmentally friendly issues, has about 1.3 million NGVs on its roads, and more than 3,500 refueling stations.

The region’s Natural Gas Vehicle Assn., commonly referred to as NGVA Europe, says more than 2,600 of these fueling facilities are for public use and the rest are privately owned for fleets.

Italy by far is the largest European natural-gas auto market, just shy of 700,000 NGVs. Other large markets include Ukraine, with more than 200,000, and Russia and Armenia, each with more than 100,000.

The traditionally environmentally sensitive Scandinavian countries are far behind: Sweden has less than 30,000 NGVs, Norway claims 500 and there are none in Denmark. Other “green” countries that are lagging: the Netherlands, with 3,500 NVGs, and Switzerland, with less than 10,000.

In some countries, such as France and Spain, the development of NGVs is centered on heavy urban vehicles, such as garbage-collection trucks and buses, which have higher fuel consumption. This focus is aimed at taking advantage of clean-exhaust strategies in cities.

NGVA Europe says improving the refueling infrastructure now is needed to boost the demand for natural-gas-powered passenger cars. “NGVA Europe is pushing hard to boost the European Union’s public investment regarding the much-needed public infrastructure that will offer CNG/LNG EU-wide.”

A common policy approach is important for Europe, with its patchwork of large and small nation states. With some countries, such as the Baltic States and Scandinavia, lacking in refueling infrastructure, traveling across the continent can be difficult for NGV owners.

In this case, alternative-fuels vehicles would offer a feasible and practical solution until the needed infrastructure changes arrive, NGVA Europe says.

In the U.S. the NGV industry is focused on a soft, sustainable launch for the technology. “We’re not trying to replicate the gas infrastructure,” says Richard Kolodziej, president of Natural Gas Vehicles for America, or NGV America, a national organization dedicated to developing a growing, sustainable and profitable market for vehicles powered by natural gas or hydrogen.

“If we were going after the average car owner, we would be interested in putting (natural gas) stations everywhere, but we’re really targeting fleet vehicles right now,” he adds.

Kolodziej admits the U.S. is fairly far down on the list when it comes to the number of NGVs on the road but says the difference between American infrastructure and that of other countries is its focus on servicing heavy-duty vehicles instead of light trucks and cars.

There are 110,000 NGVs on U.S. roads today and about 1,000 NGV fueling stations, with only about half open to the public. Kolodziej says the way America is going about expanding the NGV market is by organically adding stations where there are customers.

“There are tens of thousands of trucks whose job is to go from Point A to Point B delivering goods,” he says. “So with that you would only need two filling stations – one at either end of the delivery route.”

Once the filling stations begin economically serving heavy-duty vehicles, then regular consumer interest begins to generate, as well, Kolodziej says.

In Los Angeles, for example, which has about 100 natural-gas filling stations, there is enough infrastructure in place to serve light-duty vehicles on a regular basis, along with fleet vehicles.

“A lot of stations shut down over time because they just weren’t economic, which is why we’re now focusing on a more organic approach to establishing these stations now,” Kolodziej says.

The U.S. approach seems to be working. Industry data shows vehicular natural gas nearly doubled between 2003 and 2009, currently displacing more than 300 million gallons (1.1 billion L) of diesel fuel.

Kolodziej says the amount of natural-gas fuel sold in the U.S. has been increasing by roughly 25% each year for the last three years.

– with Emma Jackson and M.J. Deschamps