The Alternative On-Hand: Why Isn’t Propane a More Prominent Part of Our Alternative Fuels Conversation?

by Feb 3, 2015Smart Cities

Hannah Greinetz

Hannah Greinetz holds a BA in Anthropology from UC Santa Cruz and an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School.

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In the US, we have over 190,000 miles of pipeline devoted to the delivery of liquid oil and gas for our energy needs. Of that total, about 60,000 miles transport crude oil, another 60,000 transport refined petroleum, and the remaining 60,000 deliver natural gas liquids.

Natural gas liquids include propane, butane, ethane, isobutane, and natural gasoline, and all are produced as a by-product of natural gas processing and petroleum refining. Increased domestic oil production has created a flood of supply in the US propane market; the US is now producing a record high of about 1.6 million barrels of propane per day; the Marcellus Shale has the potential to produce up to 1.8 billion gallons of propane per year by 2020. As a result of this growth, in 2012 the US became a net exporter of propane for the first time in history.

For a country focused on energy independence as the US is, propane seems to be an extremely viable transition fuel to a cleaner economy and an economy that relies on domestic energy sources. One industry leader posits that we are sitting on 200 years of domestically produced propane consumption. The US Department of Energy has also done extensive research and released their studies on the benefits of and comparisons of propane to diesel, CNG, and gasoline; and has found, for several reasons, that propane is a top contender for the alternative fuel that we should be using in our transition to a cleaner and domestically supported energy economy. So my question is, why aren’t we focused on building out the infrastructure that would support our use of propane as a transition fuel to this economy? I’ll spend the next few weeks on a series of articles that will explore the topic, so first, let’s get some facts straight about propane.

Of our total propane consumption in the U.S., we use the majority, 45%, in the petrochemical industry, 42% for residential and commercial purposes, 5% each for industry and farming, and the remaining 3% is used for transportation. It’s this last 3% of propane used to run automobiles that deserves another look. According to the US Alternative Fuels Data Center, cars run on propane are emit less CO2, less particulates and GHG’s, are less expensive to fill up, and more generally, they’d be running on a domestic fuel source. They ran a lifecycle analysis on the emissions content of propane and found that, “propane use reduced GHG emissions by nearly 10%, and when derived as a by-product of natural gas production, propane reduced petroleum use by 98% to 99%.” Propane is an inherently cleaner burning fuel than gasoline, due to its lower carbon content.

Roush CleanTech and Autogas for America provide the following statistics for more perspective:

  • Propane autogas exhaust creates 60 to 70% less smog-producing hydrocarbons than gasoline (Southwest Research Institute).
  • Compared to gasoline, propane yields 12% less carbon dioxide, about 20% less nitrogen oxide, and as much as 60% less carbon monoxide (World Liquid Propane Gas Association, January 2003; California Energy Commission, January 2003).
  • Propane autogas cuts emissions of toxins and carcinogens, like benzene and toluene, by up to 96% when compared to gasoline (Southwest Research Institute).
  • Propane is a low-carbon alternative fuel that produces significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than diesel and gasoline in a wide range of applications (Propane Education & Research Council).
  • Propane autogas has an octane rating of 106 (compared to premium grade gasoline of 91 to 92), which allows for a higher compression ratio in the engine and greater engine efficiency. This leads to significant reductions in exhaust emissions like carbon monoxide (Argonne National Laboratory).

And a visual comparison of fuels, source: Autogas for America

The US currently runs about 150,000 cars and buses on propane autogas; most of that number comes from fleet vehicles and city buses; propane is also a common fuel source for heavy equipment like forklifts and lawnmowers. The US is trailing many countries who have more widely adopted propane autogas for consumer vehicles, and have invested in the infrastructure for propane autogas refueling stations. Turkey leads the world with the most cars run on propane, at 3.9 million. Russia runs 3 million cars on propane, Poland has 2.75 million, India runs about 2 million out of their total estimated 60 million vehicles, and Italy also runs about 2 million vehicles on propane out of their total 40 million.

The US Department of Energy supports a program called Clean Cities, the goal of which is to reduce petroleum consumption in transportation through local action. Clean Cities consists of a network of 100 coalitions across the country which can share best practices and pool their resources to create bigger and better impact. The program supports propane infrastructure in a move away from petroleum, and has recognized several cities and states for their transition to running fleets and school buses on propane, as well as for these cities’ efforts to build out the infrastructure for refueling stations.

The most common way that this transition from petroleum to propane happens for vehicles is through a vehicle conversion, so that the original gasoline or diesel engine is outfitted to run either solely on propane autogas, or on propane as well as gasoline so that the driver can extend the range of his vehicle. Propane is considered an alternative fuel under the Energy Policy Act of 1992, and several federal grant programs have been put in place to support the increase in number of cars on the road running on propane. Several coalitions in the Clean Cities program have received awards for their work in building propane autogas infrastructure and in providing the resources for vehicle conversions: the Alabama coalition, Indiana, Ohio, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Virginia Clean Cities.

Falling oil prices have recently dragged down the price of natural gas, and propane along with it. This makes any alternative to gasoline less attractive, since gas is the status quo, and the inertia goes something like, ‘if it’s there and it’s cheap, why fix it?’. There’s this, and a host of other challenges and questions to answer to in the realm of alternative fuels, and this exploration will continue into a series of articles – stay tuned!

I welcome your comments and perspective on this topic, and the many facets of the conversation around alternative fuels.


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  1. Spot on, Northwest Propane has converted in excess of 5,000 vehicles to propane. 2 issues,

    1) If it is all about being less dependent on foreign sources of energy and having cleaner air, let us identify the first market for propane. John Q Fleet, research the DOE numbers on who uses the largest amount of fuel (lowest average fuel mileage) and who makes the most emissions ( heavier vehicles make more emissions) This market approach would do three things, displace the most amount of cruel, reduce the most amount of emission and create a market to build a better infrastructure for refueling and reduce the cost of conversions.

    2) Reduced the cost of conversion, what an idea ( Return on investment ) EPA is broken, the cost to do a full EPA emission certification cost between 60 and $ 100,000 dollars. Divide that by the number of conversions for one engine family. There should be a shorter, less expensive way to certify a vehicle that has already been emission certified by the manufacturer.

    Lon Holloway
    Sales Manager
    Northwest Propane Gas Company
    972 247 6121

    • Lon,
      Thank you for your reply. It’s valuable to hear your insights into the conversion process, and from my limited research, I agree that the fleet population is the most natural starting point for conversions and demonstrating the impact of a move from gasoline to lpg. I’m curious to hear your perspective on the question of building out infrastructure – is this a chicken-or-egg question of demand for filling stations, or something more?
      You make another great point about the cost of conversion in certification from the EPA, and I hadn’t thought about how the EPA can support the sustainability measurements of the DoE’s alternative fuel research by lowering the cost to convert vehicles which would, in turn, increase the demand for infrastructure and prove propane to a viable large-scale alternative fuel.


  2. Mr. Holloway, the undisputed most experienced person still operating in the propane vehicle business, uses a key word in his comment: fleet. To those of us in the business this means refueled at a central facility or contracting fuel supplier.
    Where fleet operators go crazy is when a driver runs low on fuel away from home and must fill at a public station and is charged the barbecue bottle rate ($4.00+/gal) for 40 to 70+ gallons.
    The worst offenders are U-Haul locations.
    When this flagrant price gouging happens, the operating savings for propane is gone for a week …. maybe a month.

    Thanks for your article. You ask very timely questions.

  3. The biggest challenge is not nessarily the end user. It is the existing propane marketers who, for the most part, don’t want to change. In the midwest I would guess that 90% of the marketers don’t use propane in their delivery trucks. So, what end user would want to risk going down an unknown path when his supplier doesn’t even use it?

  4. We just returned from a trip to the Dominican Republic. Almost of their cars have been converted to LP, which is considerably cheaper than gasoline. LP filling stations are much more common than gasoline stations. The fact that an underdeveloped country can pull this off shows me what a stranglehold the big oil companies have on the US elected representatives who make the laws.

  5. You make a great point about how propane can be a very effective alternative fuel. That’s interesting that propane autogas creates 60 to 70% less smog than gasoline. The area I live in can have some pretty severe thermal inversions in the winter; making for some of the worst air quality conditions in the US. Maybe if there were more commercial propane delivery services it would be easier for people to use this fuel source.

  6. Thanks for pointing out how propane is a much cleaner option than other fossil fuels. I will have to see what it can do for my home heating needs. The fact that I can get it delivered to my property is also a very good benefit.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing! It is so interesting to me that propane isn’t one of the main sources of energy for cars. If it really emits less carbon monoxide, and is so readily available, then I am not sure why it isn’t being investigated. After all propane is used to heat a lot of homes, so we obviously have the technology to expand our engines to use it!

  8. When thinking of alternative fuel, propane wasn’t the first thing I thought of, to be honest. After reading this article though, I can see that it would be a beneficial resource to use. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Great article! Policy makers should incentivize propane refueling stations just like the electric ones. Too bad the VW settlement monies are not being used for this. You could add a lot more propane vehicles verses electric for the cost – just look at school buses. You could replace three school buses with propane buses verses the cost of one electric bus, and propane buses don’t need to be plugged in at night because they start at -41 degrees. That would be the fastest way to reduce GHG emissions. I wish our legislators would look a the overall impact and cost when it comes to alternative fuels. I drive a bi-fuel propane and gasoline Explorer and wish we had more infrastructure stations for propane vehicles. If we did I would go solely propane.

    Looking forward to reading your next article!

  10. What is the possibility of converting vehicles over to natural gas?

  11. Which is best for the overall environment, propane or natural gas?
    We have the fortunate choice to use either for home heating and are very interested in which specifically would leave the least carbon footprint.
    Thank you for your response in advance.


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