Propane gains as an alternative for vehicles

School bus drivers in Macon, Georgia, have noticed one advantage to their new propane-driven school buses. “The children are much quieter,” says bus driver Esther Muhammad. “That’s because the engines don’t make as much noise. The kids can actually hear themselves talk.”

Quieter engines are only one of the advantages school districts around the country are finding as they convert their fleets to propane. Lower fuel costs, lower maintenance charges and longer engine life are among the advantages. So are lower emissions and compliance with the 1995 Clean Air Act. A propane engine produces 25 percent less carbon emissions, 66,000 pounds less nitrous oxide and 2,700 pounds less particulate matter over the course of a year compared with petroleum. “Because of these new propane buses, children will no longer be exposed to diesel fumes when boarding or disembarking our buses,” says Peter Crossan, fleet and compliance manger of the Boston Public Schools, which just put in an order for 86 Blue Bird Propane Vision buses, manufactured in Georgia.

The move toward propane — which is also called “autogas” — is picking up steam. Propane buses now run in 19 of the top 25 school bus markets, including New York, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Miami and Phoenix. In the Mesa County Valley district of Grand Junction, Colorado. Administrators recently signed a five-year, $30 million contract that includes 122 propane buses, according to The New York Times. Altogether there are now 143,000 propane vehicles on the road in the U.S.

Propane is a gas that is easily stored as a liquid under only 160 pounds of pressure. It is a by-product of both gas and oil production, with 65 percent of our propane coming from natural gas refining and the remaining 35 percent from oil. “We have enough natural gas to last us 200 years,” says Stuart Weidie, president of Alliance Autogas. “We’re not going to run out of propane.”

Propane has been used to run cars since 1912 and is still the third most used fuel, behind gasoline and diesel. Because it’s a little more difficult to handle than gasoline and has only 85 percent of the energy content, however, its use in standard automobiles has been limited. Instead, propane is employed mainly for home heating in rural areas where gas pipelines to not extend, and for laundry dryers, water heaters, backyard barbecues and portable stoves. There are about 10,000 filling stations around the country now. Propane sells for $1 per gallon less than gasoline, which gives it a price advantage.

Right now propane is starting to be used for medium-, heavy-duty and fleet vehicles such as garbage trucks, police cars, taxis, city buses and emergency vehicles. There are 450,000 forklifts running on propane, since their exhausts are easier to tolerate in enclosed spaces. The 2016 Ford F-150 light-duty truck will be suited for propane conversion, making it the eighth Ford model to be so outfitted. However, conversion of your automobile to propane can cost from $5,000 to 10,000 and is not for the faint of heart. A lot of computer adjustments are necessary on late-model cars, and they must be outfitted with an extra gas tank. Usually cars run on both gasoline and propane, since it isn’t always easy to find a propane filling station. The payoff is $1 per gallon saved on gasoline, but since most cars consume only about 500 gallons per year, that’s a long payback. Fleet vehicles like police cars that may log 50,000 miles a year, however, become economical. United Parcel Service has 750 vehicles running on propane.

Around the country, towns and cities are starting to buy into propane. The city council in Roanoke, Virginia, has just voted to convert part of the city’s police fleet to propane, as has Springfield, Illinois. ConocoPhillips will deploy more than 300 of its vehicles to “autogas” over the next five years. The Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) in southeast Michigan is converting 61 “connector buses” that provide door-to-door service for the elderly and handicapped.

The movement has reached the point where STN Expo will sponsor a one-day “Green Bus Summit” in Reno on July 29th. The participants will discuss current and pending regulatory issues and funding opportunities for propane conversions.

In moving toward propane power, the United States is actually trailing several countries that have shifted to propane because of difficulties in acquiring imported oil. South Korea, Poland, Turkey and India all run more than 50 percent of their vehicles on propane. All these countries converted after being hit hard by the oil crisis of the 1970s. In the United States, however, the price of gasoline of diesel fuel remained low enough that we didn’t have to pursue alternatives. Now that is changing.

The propane industry foresees a strategy in which the increasing use of propane by fleet vehicles and light- and medium-duty delivery trucks will eventually lead to the construction of more propane filling stations. This will give motorists enough confidence to start buying propane-enabled vehicles or convert their cars from gasoline. “That’s the way it’s happened in Europe,” says Stuart Weidie of Autogas Alliance. “I think you’re going to see it happen here as well.”

(Photo credit: Roush Cleantech)