Why Now Is a Good Time for Propane Autogas

Sales of propane autogas vehicles picked up considerable momentum going into 2014, as new vehicles hit the road and word spread among fleet managers about propane's performance and economic benefits.

Propane-powered vehicles have been around for almost a century. Among the more distinguished examples are the ‘Red Jammer’ buses at Glacier National Park that began rolling on propane in the 1930s. Today's propane buses are most often yellow school buses. Propane autogas school bus sales accounted for 12% of new Type C sales last year due to the fuel's strong return on investment and savings per mile over diesel. Blue Bird Corp. set the high sales mark in 2013, and this year's launch of Thomas Built school buses will provide continued momentum for propane autogas in pupil transportation.

Propane autogas picked up speed into package delivery business in March with the UPS announcement that it is investing nearly $70 million to deploy 1,000 propane delivery trucks and at least 40 private refueling stations this year. Built by Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. (FCCC) with a 6.0-liter GM power plant from Powertrain Integration, the UPS trucks will share the road with FCC's S2G (33,000 GVW) outfitted with an 8.0-liter GM engine (also from Powertrain Integration) that the propane industry will use in its delivery fleet. Both engines use CleanFUEL USA liquid injection fuel systems. Additional propane engine options are expected in the near future.

Our organization has invested millions of dollars and partnered with a host of engine and vehicle manufacturers to bring to market vehicles designed and built to meet the needs of commercial and public-sector fleets. For instance, ROUSH CleanTech has established a foothold among light-duty fleets, with propane conversions for Ford's F-series trucks and E-series vans. These vehicles deliver the performance, torque, towing capacity and reliability of their conventionally-fueled counterparts, which has attracted fleets such as DHL, DISH Network, Sears and ThyssenKrupp Elevator.

Demand is also growing for aftermarket conversion kits for both dedicated and bi-fuel propane fuel systems. A number of domestic and international companies have entered the U.S. market with EPA- and CARB-certified conversion kits. Getting more aftermarket systems certified is a priority, but that effort must deal with the cost and time burdens of state regulations. There is movement, especially in California, which is considering changes in its regime for vehicle conversions. The number of skilled independent and affiliated installers of conversion systems is also expanding along with demand.

Research continues to pursue a broad array of vehicle engines and motorized off-road equipment. We are working on several promising propane technologies, including a dual-fuel system for use in diesel engines and a direct-injection engine that takes advantage of propane's unique properties to greatly improve both efficiency and environmental performance.

While clean, efficient engine technology is vital for success in the alternative fuel space, other factors enter the equation: fuel characteristics, infrastructure costs and availability of technical training. For instance, propane's fuel characteristics make it well-suited for use in vehicles. It's a naturally clean fuel that reduces carbon and other tailpipe emissions compared to gasoline and diesel. Propane is stored as a liquid and has a fuel density close to gasoline and diesel, and that readily enables adequate on-board fuel storage without sacrificing cargo space or vehicle range.

Installation and operation of propane autogas refueling infrastructure is affordable. That makes propane especially popular among centrally fueled fleets that operate school buses, shuttle vans and delivery vehicles. This first cost advantage also is the probably why there are, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, more publicly accessible propane autogas stations than for most other alternative fuels.

The business case for using propane autogas is bolstered by the fact that maintenance and repair facilities do not require any significant modification to accommodate work on propane vehicles. Training resources are available for vehicle service technicians from PERC, ROUSH CleanTech, the National Alternative Fuels Training Center and a number of other sources. PERC also is exploring ways to expand installation, service and maintenance training through select community colleges and technical schools.

Ultimately, with any alternative fuel vehicle, reliability is an essential part of the value proposition. You can almost hear fleet managers ask, ‘Can I get the fuel when I need it, at an affordable cost, and will my vehicles do their job in any weather?’ That proposition was surely tested this winter, when temperatures plunged and demand for propane soared. Because fleet fuel use is far more predictable than space-heating demand, fuel deliveries remained on schedule, and propane autogas vehicles kept rolling along.

Perhaps the experience is best summed up by a fleet manager for a school district in eastern Wisconsin, where the arctic blast dropped temperatures to -27 degrees F: ‘Simply put, our propane Visions are great cold-weather buses,’ he said, referring to Blue Bird's autogas-powered full-size Vision school buses. ‘We experienced easy starting, heat within minutes, quiet operation and less headaches. Our drivers love the buses – and when the driver is happy, everyone is happy.’

I'd certainly be happy if more people used propane autogas vehicles – and I suspect those people would be happy, too.

Roy Willis is president and CEO of the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC). He can be reached at (202) 452-8975.

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