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