Propane Refueling Infrastructure: How Viable Is It To Run Fleets on Propane in the US?

By Hannah Greinetz

Hannah Greinetz is the Managing Editor of the Meeting of the Minds Blog. She holds a BA in Anthropology from UC Santa Cruz and an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School.

This series on propane autogas has been taking a deep-dive into the merits and challenges of converting vehicles to run on propane; the second article in the series made an attempt to qualify the benefits to society of converting 5% of San Diego’s fleet vehicles to run on propane. Which leaves us at the question of how viable it is for fleet managers to keep their fleets running on propane based on our current infrastructure; how well are we set up to support the use of alternative fuels, and specifically LPG?

The Department of Energy houses the Alternative Fuels Data Center, which keeps a current map of all public fueling stations for a handful of alternative fuels, including liquid propane, CNG, biodiesel, and electric charging stations, among others. The AFDC shows 2,821 propane stations in the US, excluding private stations. As a point of comparison, the AFDC logs 9,270 electric charging stations across the country, excluding private stations and excluding the 23,427 electric charging outlets that are also available.

Imagine that we’d want our city to convert its fleet vehicles to run on propane because we see the benefits of costs savings, a domestically sourced fuel, and fewer emissions than running the fleet on gasoline. The problems for the fleet manager are the cost of conversion and the refueling infrastructure. When private fleets are converted to propane, they generally install their own fueling station and give each driver an access card to fill up at the private station; when the drivers are out and away, they have the option to fill up at the 2,821 stations located around the country. Fleets running on gasoline have the option to fill up at any of the 168,000 gas stations in the US.

In 2009, Virginia Clean Cities took up this very challenge, and accepted a government grant to help them facilitate the switch to propane autogas. Their plan was to install 10 fueling stations, but also to use the grant for a comprehensive outreach program and marketing campaign that would do the equally hard work of educating the public on the benefits and reasoning behind the switch. Their goal has been to educate the public and lead by example by converting about 1,200 vehicles from 36 fleets across 11 states, which would result in the displacement of over 4million gallons of gasoline and prevent over 4,000 tons of airborne pollutants from entering our atmosphere.

The challenge looks to be equally in the funding for fueling infrastructure and the public’s perception of propane autogas as a fueling option, but propane’s proponents are garnering support from private enterprise. Menard’s, a home improvement retail company, is a prime example; in the past few years they’ve installed 37 propane autogas fueling stations that service their fleet vehicles and are also open to the public. The opening of these fueling stations has Menard’s join the ranks of private businesses like U-Haul, Sear’s, and DHL in helping the US to establish a network of propane refueling infrastructure and expanding availability to the public. Menard’s used a grant from the Department of Energy to partially fund the project. The grant is a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act with a goal of establishing a national network of propane autogas refueling stations.

The nature of the public-private partnership in building out propane’s infrastructure makes this fuel no different than any other in the US in the sense that government subsidies have, or are, playing a role in subsidizing our fuel choices into availability. In the end, it seems that public perception and awareness is the harder sell when it comes to adopting propane as an automotive fuel. Business leaders and industry associations seem to be doing their best to promote and sell propane’s benefits as a cleaner fuel, but until we see easier access to propane-fueled vehicles and public awareness of how it can impact our country in terms of economics and health benefits, propane’s increase in market share may continue to be incremental.

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