The Fast Track From Propane Grills to Propane Cars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Nov 02, 2014

MIAMI—Is propane tomorrow’s clean fuel? UPS seems to think so. It just ordered 1,000 propane delivery trucks to use in Oklahoma and Louisiana. UPS is investing $70 million in the trucks and 50 fueling stations.

UPS is making the big purchase: 1,000 propane trucks. (UPS photo)“It will take decades to electrify the world,” said Kimball Chen, a propane gas advocate and president of the World LP Gas Association. “We haven’t communicated the virtues of LP [liquid petroleum] gas, but it’s a clean fossil fuel.”
 
The Miami hotel conference room looked like the United Nations, with delegates from all over Asia, Europe and Africa. This was the World LP Gas Forum, held to celebrate what we here in America call propane, the bottled gas commonly used in outdoor barbecues. But if you think of it as limited to that admittedly fairly large use, you’d be in the wrong place—these delegates wanted propane to take over the world. Energy wise, that is.

A propane-powered Fiat 500 showed the international flag in Miami (Jim Motavalli photo) The U.S. is a leader in spreading the propane gospel, largely through the efforts of the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC). Other nations, we’re told, experience “PERC envy.” Not only does PERC advocate for propane, it actively works to build markets wherever they can be found—fueling trucks, school buses, police cars, generators, commercial lawnmowers, boats, irrigation equipment, water heaters and more.

Four hundred thousand kids go to school in propane buses, using fillers like this one from Superior Energy Systems. (Jim Motavalli photo) Roy Willis, president of PERC, is quick to tick off propane’s advantages. It’s a liquid fuel, like Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) but it stores at very low pressure, which makes for low-cost refueling (a tenth the cost of CNG). It’s also mostly made (70 percent) from natural gas, which means it’s much cheaper than gasoline (and half the cost of diesel). And its cleaner than either, with a 12 percent reduction in carbon dioxide, a 20 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide, and a 60 percent reduction in carbon monoxide (compared to gasoline).
 
General Motors worked with Powertrain Integration to introduce a six-liter propane autogas engine for trucks and buses, and there’s also a big-boy eight liter. Superior Energy Systems makes a new propane filler that minimizes spillage and looks pretty much like a gas pump. Your granny could connect the hose, though it’s a bit heavy.

 A trio of new propane outboard motors from LEHR. (Jim Motavalli photo)“If propane isn’t used as an environmentally friendly fuel, it will wind up being used, like other fossil fuels, to make more plastic bags,” said Willis. “And the world has enough plastic bags. This is a clean, made-in-America fuel.” Adds Tucker Perkins, PERC’s development officer, “In four to seven years we’ll take a big share from gasoline and diesel, because our fuel is superior. And the tough new emission rules have made diesel engines more expensive and difficult to maintain.”
 
PERC works with companies to develop new uses for propane, and pays big incentives—$2,000 for customers who buy a new propane mower, and $1,000 for a propane mower conversion. It’s sponsoring a big push into golf course maintenance.

 This fearsome propane-powered beast has something to do with grooming golf courses. A whole new market! (Jim Motavalli photo)All of this was interesting, but I’m a car guy. Can you run cars on propane? Sure, it’s an easy conversion. It takes minor engine modifications (to the injectors and valve seats) and an installed propane tank. Fills are about the same as for a gas car, and your range is around 300 miles in many cases. I drove a propane-fueled Ford truck, and it was a nice ride—quiet.
 
It begs the question: Why aren’t we fueling fleets on propane? Well, we are, sort of. There are 17 to 23 million vehicles around the world running on the stuff, though mostly outside the U.S.
 
The U.S. has 150,000 propane vehicles, and 400,000 kids ride to school on propane buses. Police departments in the South are converting to propane, using captured meth money to pay for the fueling stations. Taxis are running on it, including in Las Vegas. Peapod, the grocery delivery guys, have propane delivery trucks.

 Some propane school buses rock the flashy graphics. (Photo courtesy PERC)The big challenge—for propane, hydrogen, CNG, LNG, electric, whatever alternate fuel you can name—is the need for infrastructure. We have 150,000 gas stations in America. Fleets have their own refueling, which is why U.S. adoption is starting there.
 
It’s different in Europe. Alexander Stohr, autogas manager for the World LP Gas Association, says that taxation policies in countries such as Italy, Spain and Poland make it quite sensible to convert your car to propane.  Here's a new guide to where all the cool propane stuff is around the world.
 
“We’re moving beyond dreams and into markets,” said Willis, who’s a big part of making that happen. Don’t expect a lot of propane vehicles on the road next year. Jeremy Lessaris, a spokesman for Power Solutions International, estimated his eight-liter engine would power 2,000 to 3,000 trucks and buses this year. But propane is on a roll, and we’ve become a net exporter of the stuff—1.9 billion gallons went overseas in 2011.

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