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The forgotten transportation fuel: Why some believe propane deserves a second look

While propane doesn’t pack quite the punch diesel does, it does produce enough power to handle many of the tasks at a fraction of the overall cost, advocates say, up to Class 7 applications as this Ford F-650 box truck shows, so why is not a more popular fuel for commercial operations? ( Photo: Brian Straight/FreightWaves )

Strolling the floor at the National Truck Equipment Association’s Work Truck Show in Indianapolis last week, one booth had a large baby blue box van in it. Among the rest of the displays in the booth, this truck, built on the Ford (NYSE: F) F-750 truck platform, was powered by propane (sometimes called autogas) in a system developed by Roush CleanTech. The truck generated a broader question – “Why don’t more fleets use propane as a transportation fuel?”

Mike Taylor, director of autogas business development for the Propane Education & Resource Council (PERC), answered, “That is a really good question.” He told FreightWaves, “I wish I had a good answer.”

Propane is a byproduct of natural gas processing and petroleum refining and it is estimated that the U.S. has a 200-year supply of the fuel source. While it doesn’t pack quite the punch that diesel fuel does, it does produce enough power to handle many of the tasks diesel engines are asked to accomplish at a fraction of the overall cost, Taylor said.

Some fleets have embraced propane as a transportation fuel, while others stick with diesel or even gasoline if they operate medium-duty trucks. A primary reason is energy density. Based on a gallon of gasoline basis, diesel fuel provides 113 percent of the energy density, while propane provides just 73 percent, which is a significant drop-off.

But, one gallon of propane runs about 30 percent cheaper than a gallon of gasoline and has been as much as 50 percent cheaper than diesel at times, leading some to say that it’s okay if they use more propane fuel because their overall fuel cost is still less. As of March 11, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported the national retail average of gasoline was $2.42, on-highway diesel was $3.07 and propane was $2.42. On top of that, as Taylor points out, propane vehicles do not have the same maintenance issues related to diesel exhaust after-treatment systems, specifically maintenance of the diesel particulate filter, and are priced comparably in many cases with diesel vehicles. The result is a lower total cost of ownership, he said.

“Depending on payload and route, propane is almost a gallon-for-gallon equivalent to gasoline,” Taylor said.

Propane has generally found acceptance in school bus fleets. Taylor said that more than 16,000 school buses operate each day in the U.S. on propane, carrying more than one million schoolchildren.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) produced a case study looking at propane-powered school bus fleets. It found that some of the school districts studied saved 50 percent on a cost-per mile basis for fuel and maintenance in comparison to diesel-powered buses. Return-on-investment was achieved in as little as three years, and no more than eight at the long-end, and the propane buses achieved 7.2 miles per gallon in the case study, over an average of 14,700 miles per year.

In addition to school buses, some fleets are finding propane to offer advantages, particularly in terms of meeting sustainability goals.

 One of the benefits of propane is that it is a flexible fuel that can power vehicles from Class 1 cars and pickups, through lower-weight Class 8 vehicles. This is a propane-powered delivery van on a Ford F-59 stripped chassis with Morgan Olson body. ( Photo: Roush CleanTech )
One of the benefits of propane is that it is a flexible fuel that can power vehicles from Class 1 cars and pickups, through lower-weight Class 8 vehicles. This is a propane-powered delivery van on a Ford F-59 stripped chassis with Morgan Olson body. ( Photo: Roush CleanTech )

“Becoming a better steward of our environment is a priority for Nestlé Waters,” Bill Ardis, then national fleet manager for Nestle Waters’ ReadyRefresh business unit and now the company’s senior director of fleet services, said in a 2017 press release announcing the fleet would be adding 400 medium-duty propane vehicles to its ReadyRefresh fleet, bringing the total to more than 600. “We’ve been running propane autogas vehicles since 2014, beginning with five Class 5 vehicles. Based on the proven emissions reduction compared with our older diesel units, and lower fuel and total cost of ownership, we knew this was the right application for us within the alternative fuel space. With propane being domestically produced, it’s proven to have a more stable cost per gallon, while the fueling and maintenance infrastructures are much more cost- effective than other alternative fuel options.”

Roush CleanTech offers propane systems for vehicles up and down the commercial truck range and touts the fuel’s environmental benefits as a reason for fleets to consider the fuel. Propane creates 60 percent to 70 percent less smog-producing hydrocarbons than gasoline, 12 percent less carbon dioxide, 20 percent less nitrogen oxide and as much as 60 percent less carbon monoxide, it said.

Taylor said the propane infrastructure continues to grow in the country, and the only limitation is engine availability. Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. offers an 8.8-liter propane engine that “mimics diesel” in performance, Taylor said. Most vehicles, including those up to “low Class 8” operations (sometimes called “Baby 8”), can operate on propane with up to a 400-mile range on a single tank of fuel. That makes propane, in essence, a direct competitor to electric and diesel applications with a return-to-base setup without the large infrastructure costs.

“Propane is the most cost-effective fuel in reducing emissions, especially oxide of nitrogen (NOx),” Taylor said.

This is important, he said, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has signaled its intention to reduce NOx levels on heavy-duty trucks to a number lower than the current 0.20 grams per brake horsepower hour (g/bhp-hr). Some have speculated that the move could mirror what California is attempting to do and that is lower NOx 90 percent from current levels.

Some propane engines, Taylor said, are already at that point, making propane a potential fuel fit for any new regulation.

Autogas for America said there about 150,000 vehicles in the U.S. running on propane, which pales in comparison to other parts of the world. For instance, 3.9 million vehicles run on the fuel in Turkey, three million in Russia and 2.75 million in Poland. Even India has about two million propane vehicles in operation.

“We have a proven fuel that has been in this U.S. since the 1970s,” Taylor said. “We have a growing infrastructure and it is a very secure fuel.”

Going back to the initial question of why more fleets don’t use propane, Taylor was unable to come up with a strong answer. Certainly power considerations are part of it, but PERC is working to dispel what it believes are the myths surrounding the fuel and the organization certainly believes there are many current applications in which propane makes perfect sense. Now it just needs to make believers out of a doubting industry.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight covers general transportation news and leads the editorial team as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and fleetowner.com. Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler.

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