The Impacts of Running our Fleet Vehicles on Propane
In my last article, I focused on the seemingly overlooked benefits of using propane as fuel for our vehicles. The merits of propane have been recognized by city governments, propane alliances, and the Department of Energy through its Clean Cities program. And with the current increase in domestic oil supply, comes an increase in domestic propane supply. Yet, relative to oil, there are few uses for propane in this country, even though we've got a lot of it and we've recognized the benefits of running our most prolific energy user on propane: automobiles.
And if we were going to prove the concept in practice, the natural place to start would be with the heaviest fuel users – the vehicles that get the lowest number of miles per gallon of fuel, have the biggest fuel tanks, refuel most often, and travel in packs – fleet vehicles. Converting fleet vehicles to run on propane has the biggest impact, since they're doing the heavy lifting. Think about fleet vehicles in cities: they're performing road maintenance and parks maintenance, fleets include city buses and school buses, as well as police cars and emergency vehicles that can't afford to operate on low-range electric plug-in options.
If SD converted 5% of its fleet vehicles to run on propane...
The county of San Diego manages a fleet of over 3,800 vehicles performing a variety of services in the city and county. The San Diego regional area is a member of the Clean Cities coalition run by the Department of Energy, which works with vehicle fleets, fuel providers, and community leaders to reduce petroleum use in transportation. It's feasible to think that San Diego could convert 5% of their fleet vehicles in an effort to directly reduce their dependence on oil and to capture the other benefits of propane as automobile gas. As we learned last month, these benefits include reduced emissions for better air quality, savings on fuel costs, and reduced maintenance costs.
The EPA regulates the process for converting vehicles from gas to propane; more specifically, the EPA issues conversion certificates to authorized dealers who have paid to have their process for conversion seen and permitted by the EPA. The authorization signifies that vehicles converted by the dealer will be in accordance with EPA emissions standards. A certification must be gained by the dealer for each engine family that they wish to work with, and the certificates don't come cheap. For the county of San Diego, it would make sense to pay a dealer to convert their light duty fleet vehicles, which would come at an upfront cost of around $6,000 per vehicle. The savings on fuel and maintenance costs will offset the upfront investment in converting the 190 vehicles, representing 5% of San Diego's fleet.
The County Would Save Big
Gas prices have taken a noticeable dip in the past months, however, propane prices have remained lower still. At this time last year, and on average over the past few years, propane prices have been $1.25 - $1.50 cheaper per gallon than gas prices. This savings on fuel is largely where fleet managers recoup the high upfront costs incurred for converting their fleets' gas engines to run on propane. The latest data on fuel prices, for the week of February 23, puts the national average price of gas at $2.42, and the national average price of propane at $2.36.
So, even with lower than average gas prices and assuming they stay this low all year, if San Diego were to convert 5% of their 3,800 fleet vehicles to run on propane, and assuming the average fuel economy of a US light duty fleet vehicle is 17.1 mpg, and the average light duty city fleet vehicle travels 14,536 miles per year, San Diego would save $9,690 on fuel costs alone this year.
In a 'normal' year, with fuel prices at an average of $1.25 more than propane prices, San Diego would be looking at a fuel savings to the tune of $202,000 per year.
Apart from the decrease in fuel costs, maintenance costs are also documented as being cheaper for propane vehicles than for gasoline engines. By some estimates, maintenance costs are reduced by 50% when running an auto engine on propane.
San Diego would be doing its residents a service in converting vehicles to propane through the benefits the public would reap in better air quality. The Ford F-series trucks have been the number one selling light duty vehicle in the US for the past 27 consecutive years, and the GHG emissions numbers below have been calculated based on a Ford F-150 traveling 10,000 miles per year at the 14.7 average mpg. We can see from the table that by converting 5% of their fleet, San Diego would be directly reducing the amount of carbon equivalents (think emissions & particulates) in the air by 1,340 kgs per vehicle per year, which adds up to 254,600 kgs per year, and cleaner air in San Diego.
Not to mention that San Diego's 190 conversions would directly reduce our nation's oil consumption by over 161,500 gallons of gas per year. The impacts and implications of running just a small percentage of our vehicles on propane are huge, so the last piece of the puzzle remains – what about the infrastructure? Stay tuned for the final article in this series that will examine the barriers to running and sustaining a propane vehicle economy.
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