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Propane Autogas Drivers and Barriers

What are the opportunities for propane to gain wider acceptance as alternative fuel for fleets, and what’s holding it back?

September 26, 2012

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If you’ve been in fleet long enough, propane as an alternative fuel has crept into your discussion at various times. You’ve weighed the benefits and drawbacks specific to your fleet needs, and you’ve probably formed a set of opinions on propane, whether you’ve implemented it or not.

Is propane autogas poised for a wider fleet play? Tucker Perkins, chief business development officer at the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), thinks so. “Well of course he’d push that viewpoint,” is what you may be thinking right now, and I thought similar, since I’ve been hearing that propane is poised for growth for years.

Without prognosticating on propane’s growth potential, my discussion with Perkins overturned a few of my longstanding beliefs on propane, and I gained some new information on the market — especially as compressed natural gas (CNG) is today’s “in” alternative fuel.

A Domestically Produced Fuel
I’ll admit that I thought that because propane is a derivative of crude oil, it is dependent on foreign oil and the price of oil. But propane is also derived from natural gas, and if you’ve picked up a newspaper in the last five years, you know we have a lot of it in the shale fields of North America, along with new methods to extract it.

Yes, a decade ago and beyond, the majority of propane autogas was produced from crude oil. Today, however, about 70% of the propane produced in the U.S. is made from North American natural gas; the remainder is produced from North American crude oil while less than 3% comes from other countries. In fact, the U.S. is a net exporter of propane.

Perkins says that propane’s price ratio to crude oil has dropped significantly and — using the futures market as a barometer — is expected to stay much more on par with natural gas.

Availability of OEM Products
ROUSH CleanTech has propane conversions for an array of Ford pickup trucks, vans, cutaways and chassis cabs. General Motors offers a single-source liquid propane (LPG) option for its 2012 GMC Savana cutaway 3500 and 4500 vans. Medium- and heavy-duty truck makers such as Freightliner Custom Chassis and Kenworth have propane options direct from the factory.

But for propane to gain a wider foothold, more factory-direct models are needed from more manufacturers, which will improve order-to-delivery times, enhance systems integration and ease warranty issues. This is a chicken-and-the-egg scenario, as most manufacturers prefer to work with a factory-approved conversion company for volumes less than 10,000 a year, Perkins says.

More OEM models will also move the market away from the perception that propane is an aftermarket play. “When the OEMs come in with these new liquid-injection systems, it gives everybody a little bit more credibility,” Perkins says, noting that the handful of companies producing aftermarket conversions today use the latest technology that performs perfectly well in fleets.

It can be a long road from between a green light for a new technology and implementation; add to that the time it takes for new products to gain sales momentum after hitting the market. Nonetheless, Perkins believes the manufacturers are getting onboard. “Ford [with Roush] will sell more propane autogas vehicles in the next 12 months than they sold in the previous four to five years combined,” he says.

Wholesale Valuations
At present, used vehicle value guidebooks such as Black Book do not publish values for vehicles powered by propane, or CNG for that matter. The volume isn’t there for Black Book to reasonably interpret the data, and the ones that do get remarketed generally aren’t through the auctions, says Ricky Beggs, managing editor of Black Book.

Anecdotally, propane vehicles fare well in the used vehicle market, Perkins says, and fleet operators are not afraid to drive those vehicles to the point where resale value is no longer an issue. Black Book will no doubt be onboard when the volumes increase, yet for the meantime, a lack of published wholesale values is a barrier to greater implementation.

Fueling Infrastructure
Perkins says PERC surveys reveal that potential buyers are held back from propane because of a concern about fueling infrastructure. There are more than 2,500 publicly accessible propane fueling sites across the country — substantially more than public CNG stations — and Perkins says a surge is underway to install commercial fast-fill fuel pumps. Still, for many fleets in many areas of the country public fueling is not practical.

But that may be missing the point for how propane works feasibly for fleets today, which is with onsite fueling. Small fleets might balk at the idea of installing their own fuel pump, but consider the case of Lake Michigan Mailers of Kalamazoo, Mich.: The company has only four propane-powered vehicles, yet its propane supplier installed a pump onsite for free with a guaranteed contract. I’ve spoken with other fleets under this type of arrangement.

With defined routes and centralized fueling, would propane fleet vehicles even need to fuel opportunistically on the road? In most fleet cases, no, because propane fuel tanks can store enough fuel for close to the range achievable with a normal gasoline tank. And this is where propane starts to differ from CNG.

Propane Properties
I won’t get into the finer points of comparing propane autogas emissions to CNG. Both are clean-burning fuels, though propane has an edge when comparing greenhouse gas emissions.

But when looking at propane’s properties, at 104% octane and more than twice the BTUs of CNG, propane autogas offers greater driving range than CNG and performance on par with diesel. (Car rental shuttle operators take note.)

Further, propane is stored as a liquid and at a much lower pressure than CNG, which allows for a lighter (and lower-priced) fuel tank. It also means lower infrastructure costs. “We conservatively say you can install 15 propane fuel pumps for the cost of one natural gas pump,” Perkins says.

Perkins maintains that propane autogas is not only the cheapest alternative fuel infrastructure available, but is the cheapest infrastructure available even compared to diesel and gasoline. “The economics dwarf most any other choice,” he says.

So my thinking on propane has been adjusted, but I just write about fleets. Fleet managers, have your viewpoints changed recently to a point where you would implement propane?

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Author Bio

Chris Brown

Executive Editor

Chris Brown is the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News for Bobit Business Media. Through these publications, online newsletters, trade events and associations, Chris covers all aspects of the fleet world, including fleet management, manufacturer fleet activities, the fleet leasing industry, vehicle remarketing, rental industry news, car rental taxation and legislation as well as automotive environmental initiatives and trends.

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