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The Propane Option: Have we closed the book on the fuel too soon?

Posted: March 16, 2018 by Rolf Lockwood

Does propane get enough love as an alternative fuel? I think not. The question arose at the recent Green Truck Summit in Indianapolis, Ind., as another journalist and I listened to seemingly endless mention of electric options and natural gas in presentation after presentation. We hadn’t heard any mention at all of propane. A discussion ensued between us, and I asked a nearby friend, an OEM engineer, why propane was under everyone’s radar. “Dunno,” was the response, accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders. So a day later I made my way over to the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC) booth at The Work Truck Show. I had questions.

The two events are run, not incidentally, by the NTEA, an association that represents the work truck industry. I limit my travel these days but this particular week in Indy is a must on my calendar. It’s chock full of interesting and complex machinery of a sort that I rarely spend time with in my world that’s so dominated by the over-the-road side of trucking. I readily admit that I should spend more time with the vocational sector.

Anyway, on to PERC, where I spoke with the organization’s president and CEO Tucker Perkins. I won’t go deeply into that chat here, rather I’ll follow up with a subsequent feature article in the magazine. But Perkins eagerly pointed out a company that saw its Ford F450 fleet go from an operating cost of 30 to 19 cents per mile after switching from natural gas to propane. That seems rather extreme and I asked for details, which I’ve yet to receive. More transparent is the cost of fuel dispensers. Perkins pointed to what looked more or less like an ordinary gas pump and said it would cost about US$70,000. The equivalent natural gas setup? “Five hundred grand on a good day,” he said.

And therein lies a key advantage of propane: it’s a whole lot easier to get into. The fuelling infrastructure is also mature and pretty extensive, unlike natural gas, and you can have an on-site tank for relatively little money. Or, more likely, your fuel supplier may take care of that expense for you.

Price can be a more complex matter, and there have been moments in the recent past when prices rose sharply and shortages occurred. They were largely the result of especially cold winters and high demand for heating fuel, exacerbated by pipeline-capacity issues.

According to Natural Resources Canada, propane’s retail cost in Calgary as of March 2018 was 89.2 cents per liter, up a little from 88.7 in the same month last year. But in Toronto, last month’s price averaged 79.9 cents, almost twice what it was in March of 2017. I don’t understand that, frankly, but will explore it. In fact, most fleets running propane will be able to sign long-term contracts that pin down a price that allows them to plan costs effectively.

The usual comparison pits propane against gasoline in light- and medium-duty vehicles, and there’s ample evidence over the course of many years that the former wins in cost terms. So it’s an established option, but have we closed the book on it too soon? How does propane fare against diesel and natural gas? It’s extremely friendly in environmental terms, and it’s abundant, being a component of natural gas. It’s safe to use, easy to handle, and it has pretty high energy density. It’s not suitable for anything larger than mid-range trucks, mind you, but that leaves a pretty big market — and seemingly a pretty big upside.

Please let me know what you think, especially if you have propane experience. I’m easy to find.


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