Propane a cheaper alternative to gas for cars

A person could theoretically use the propane cylinder from their grill to fuel their vehicle if it ran on propane. The cylinder might be a little small for a vehicle, but it demonstrates propane’s portability, a gas company official said. Terry Renninger, a regional sales representative for Suburban Propane, talked to members of the Mountain Council of Governments on Friday morning.

Propane is heavier than natural gas but “is right there” with natural gas in cost, he said, and there is “no differentiation between propane and natural gas as an alternative fuel.”

Natural gas can be LNG, liquefied natural gas, or CNG, compressed natural gas. Renninger said propane has some advantages over natural gas and some of the same advantages over gasoline. “The main advantages are transportability and infrastructure,” he said. Unlike natural gas, which needs a pipeline, propane can be transported in vehicles. “We have people who go around and fill people up,” Renninger said. “Just like you would go to your local hardware store to fill that 20-pound barbecue cylinder, it is easily convertible to fill vehicles also. It’s that easy.”

The infrastructure advantage is that a propane filling station can be built a lot cheaper. “A natural gas station costs about $1 million,” Renninger said. “The same size propane station is probably less than $100,000.” If a municipality had enough vehicles on its own or municipalities wanted to get together, Renninger said Suburban would be willing to build a station if the company knew it would have enough customers. The company also could figure out the best place to put a refueling station, he said.

“I can put a system in for $16,000,” Renninger said. “It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles and doesn’t look like your standard gasoline pump but it will fill your vehicles. The way we work, if the return on investment is there for us we will buy the equipment and lease it at no cost to whoever gives us the business we need. All we ask is that you purchase the gas from us. You just have to worry about buying the vehicles. Let us worry about the logistics.”

Whatever size the refueling station would be, it would operate like a conventional gas station, pumping about eight gallons a minute.

Like natural gas, propane is cheaper than gasoline — the equivalent of a gallon of gas is $1.10. It also burns cleaner, helps users meet emissions standards and provides less wear and tear on engines, which cuts down repair expenses and causes engines to last longer, Renninger said.

And the miles-per-gallon is “comparable, but less” to a conventional vehicle, he said. Also, he said the cleaner-burning propane cuts maintenance and repair costs. Ed Wright, Suburban Propane’s manager for its facilities in Hazleton and Scranton, said with the advances in technology in the last 20 years, propane — which was around in the 1990s — has made a comeback.

The propane industry has concentrated its marketing efforts on fleet vehicles like school buses and municipal vehicles. “You’re not really seeing propane out in the general public yet because you don’t have the infrastructure like you have gasoline pumps all over the place,” Renninger said. “The industry focused on the school bus fleets because we realized that’s where we had our critical mass in dedicated customers. We could set up a refueling station for them and start getting people to understand the advantages of propane.”

Renninger said a lot of municipalities are converting their fleets of trucks to propane. Police departments and taxi fleets are also converting. “They are changing their fleets because propane is a very cost-effective fuel, especially against diesel,” Renninger said. Vehicle owners can either convert its engine to use propane or buy a vehicle that uses it. Right now, only Ford manufactures vehicles that burn propane and natural gas. According to its website, Ford’s medium-duty trucks — the F-250 through the F-750 — and its smaller transit vans can burn propane. Only the F-250 is available as a bi-fuel vehicle, which can burn either gasoline or propane. The other engines come with packages which can be used to convert those engines.

Whether converting an engine or buying a vehicle that burns propane, Renninger said the conversion cost is the same as the difference in sticker price for a propane vehicle — between $6,000 and $8,000 more. But there are incentives offered by the state and federal governments and by the Propane Education Research Council. There are also some grants.

Propane engines also offer another advantage — they are much quieter than diesel engines, Renninger said. “Bus drivers said they feel so much safer because they feel like they are more in control of their vehicles because they can hear everything that is going on,” he said. Because of the abundance of propane — due in part to the presence of the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania — the price of propane is at “historical lows.” It’s even cheaper for municipalities because they are tax-exempt.

“The federal government has been retroactively granting 50 cent-per-gallon tax credit for the last five or six years,” Renninger said. A company in New Jersey with 16 street sweepers that run on propane got a check for $70,000 last year because they bought 140 gallons of fuel, he said. Read the full article here.