Why don't more vehicles use propane fuel?

Q The unveiling last week of Madison's first hybrid taxi was a reminder that one Madison taxi company, Badger Cab, has since 1980 been fueling all its taxis with propane. What are the benefits and barriers to the wider use of propane as a vehicle fuel?

A After gasoline and diesel, propane is the third most popular vehicle fuel worldwide, according to Brian Feehan, vice president of the propane-industry group Propane Education and Research Council.

It's a distant third. In the United States, there are only about 260,000 propane-fueled vehicles, he said.

Obviously, propane stations don't dot the nation's roads and not many propane-ready vehicles are rolling off the assembly lines at the world's auto plants.

Still, Feehan said propane vehicles are becoming more common and propane proponents have made headway in getting school bus and forklift manufacturers, for example, to use the fuel.

"Our target market is not consumer-based," he said. "It's fleet-based."

A 2009 U.S. Department of Energy review found propane, under certain conditions, produces fewer harmful emissions than gas and diesel, and proponents commonly tout the fuel's environmental benefits. It also can be cheaper per gallon if bought in large quantities.

Tom Melms, owner of Badger Cab, said he has no regrets about switching his fleet to propane.

He estimated that it costs about $4,500 in parts and labor to convert a gas-burning vehicle to propane, but his costs are less because he re-uses some parts and has staff mechanics do the work. Conversion involves putting in different carburetors and fuel systems, including a new fuel tank, but the engine largely remains intact, he said.

His experience has been that a gallon of propane will take a taxi as far as a gallon of gas will, but he's able to get 10,000 gallons of propane for about $1.50 a gallon.

The math wouldn't work to the same advantage for consumer vehicles because propane is more expensive in small amounts and more difficult to find, he said. "For a taxi cab, it's perfect."

- Chris Rickert

Click here to view the story on Wisconsin State Journal.

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