Don’t discount propane in the search for alternative fuels
Posted: May 9, 2019 by John G. Smith
“We can still make a business case,” says Mike Taylor, director of autogas business development at the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC).
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Diesel and gasoline are clearly the most common fuels used by Canadian trucks, but many people might be surprised to discover that the third most widely used transportation fuel is something other than natural gas.
“Propane used as an automotive fuel was less than 1% of all fuels used for road transportation across Canada in 2015,” the Conference Board of Canada observed in its Fuelled Up report, released in December. “Yet propane is the third most used fuel in road transportation after gasoline and diesel.”
Ontario alone was home to more than 18,000 of the light- and medium-duty freight carrying trucks, while B.C. accounted for more than 9,000 of them. When all vehicle classes are accounted for, there are more than 60,000 propane-powered vehicles in Canada, and 25 million such units around the world.
“We project that road transportation demand for propane will rise about 2% annually,” the Conference Board added. “In the future, we anticipate that road transportation will be the second-fastest growing demand sector for propane.”
Fleets including Canada Post and FedEx are already counted among today’s users, while UPS has more than 600 propane-powered vehicles in Canada alone – part of a rolling laboratory testing an array of alternative fuels.
Propane-powered equipment has undeniably evolved, with engines shifting from port injection to direct injection models. Engineers are also exploring options that could be realized with engines that have more-robust blocks, says Mike Taylor, director of autogas business development at the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC). Even fuel dispensers have improved in the form of systems that come equipped with K-15 quick connectors, and dispensing times that were traditionally the domain of gasoline or diesel tanks.
The biggest challenge to adoption rates has more to do with fuel prices.
Fuel price differences
There is no question that interest in propane as a vehicle fuel has been somewhat dampened by relatively affordable gasoline and diesel. But price gaps have been known to narrow in the past. The average retail price for gasoline increased 21.5 cents per liter between August 2017 and 2018, the Conference Board reports. The price of diesel increased 23.3 cents during that time period. In contrast, auto propane prices were up just 7.7 cents.
And any shift in fuel prices makes a difference.
“Any time you see that fluctuation in pricing today, it increases sales, it draws back attention to all alternative fuels,” Taylor says. “You see that price [of gasoline or diesel] dip, alternative fuels disappear.”
“We’re far more competitive than we were four or five years ago, but when we get to price parity that’ll be a good day for us,” he adds. “Regardless, we can still make a business case for propane, give you a quick ROI, and save you money for years and years and years.”
The Conference Board of Canada argues that, while propane has a lower energy content than an equivalent volume of gasoline or diesel, it is still less expensive than gasoline on an energy-content-adjusted basis. A vehicle will travel the same distance on 1.4 liters of propane as it would travel on a liter of gasoline, but federal alternative fuel excise tax exemptions and provincial subsidies can help to narrow the price difference.
The potential cost savings don’t end there. The Canadian Propane Association says 200 auto propane filling stations can be installed at the cost of a single Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) unit. And those CNG vehicles will run about half as far per equivalent liter of propane.
Cost savings in the shop have been known to come in the form of longer oil drain intervals, too, while the clean-burning gaseous fuels should extend the time between engine overhauls. There’s no diesel exhaust fluid to contend with, either.
Environmentally friendly fuels
Costs aside, propane proponents argue that their fuel is the most environmentally friendly option among other alternative fuels.
“Per dollar invested, auto propane vehicles offset significantly more GHG emissions than CNG vehicles,” says the Canadian Propane Association. And even if it’s accidently released, propane doesn’t contribute to greenhouse gases. In contrast, up to 5% of the available natural gas is released prior to use, generating 25 times the impact of carbon dioxide, the association says.
Propane vehicles also emit lower levels of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and particulate matter when compared to gasoline-fueled vehicles. When greenhouse gases are tracked from wells to wheels, Environment Canada says propane-fueled internal combustion engines perform 22% better than gasoline and 4% better than diesel.
Still, propane doesn’t solve every emissions-related issue.
“Any time you say ‘zero-emission vehicle’, you wipe out most of us,” Taylor admits, including propane among other carbon-based fuels. But he bristles at such labels in the first place.
“There’s truly no such things as zero-emissions vehicles. There are emissions somewhere. And what about recycling, disposal of components, spillage and leakage?” Taylor says. “There’s a craze about electrification now that will pass. It’s an unproven technology. They haven’t solved the range issues. They haven’t solved the payload issues. They haven’t solved your recharging. They haven’t solved the purchasing part of it without the funding.”
He is clearly frustrated by the electric vehicle funding that emerged following settlements over Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal. “Electric gets a lot of VW funding or infrastructure. We’d love to get a portion of that. And ‘clean diesel’? Figure that one out. How is that an alternative fuel? How does that qualify?”
For now, the market continues to move forward on other merits.
“Our sales continue to be stable in spite of low gasoline and diesel prices. Our sales remain stable in spite of the glorification of electrification,” Taylor says. “Propane’s a proven technology.”
UPS is among fleets that continue to incorporate propane-powered vehicles.
Pertinent Propane Facts
Canada is the world’s fourth-largest producer of propane, generating about 171.7 million barrels per day in 2015. More than half of that fuel is used domestically. The vast majority (85-90%) comes from the processing of natural gas.
About 6% of the propane that’s used is a transportation fuel.
Propane has a higher octane rating than gasoline, which along with low carbon and low oil-contamination characteristics can improve engine life.
There are about 900 retail fuel outlets in Canada, with most in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.
The smell of rotten eggs associated with propane is actually added after the fact, so the fuel can be smelled at 1/5 of the levels that will combust.
Tanks must be filled to 80% of their capacity because liquid propane expands and contracts with changing temperatures.
Protective gloves must be worn when refueling a propane vehicle because the liquid exiting the spit valve can cause frostbite.- Source: Natural Resources Canada