Propane gets 'autogas' makeover as industry tries to go from home to highway

When most Americans hear propane, they think of starting a grill, not a car. Autogas for America hopes to change that.

The coalition launched last month in an effort to unite the fractured industry around promoting the fuel for transportation. Their pitch: The domestically produced gas burns cleaner than petroleum, is cheaper than other fuels, and the infrastructure is available now.

The group, led by chairman Stuart Weidie, hopes that message will help get 500,000 propane, or liquid petroleum gas (LPG), vehicles on the road by 2013. Meeting that goal would offset more than 1.56 billion gallons of gas per year, equivalent to taking 2.8 million conventional gasoline cars off the road, Weidie estimates.

But before they do that, the group has to get everyone to speak the same language, starting with the product they are pitching.

"'Autogas' is the term used in the rest of the world," said Weidie, noting that the diesel industry tried to brand its specialized auto fuel "road diesel" to distinguish itself. "We wanted to differentiate ourselves from propane for home use."

Weidie jokingly calls the group "the poor man's T. Boone Pickens plan without the wind," a reference to the Texas billionaire's scheme to boost wind turbine and natural gas development. Autogas for America hopes to at least approach the same level of attention and lobbying heaped on natural gas to get its fuel into the government policy mix.

The group's website boasts the membership of nearly 30 businesses and industry alliances, as well as 17 clean city and environmental groups. They are working on distributing data and talking points to make sure all of the members are sending the same message to Congress.

"We think of ourselves as a stealth fuel," Weidie said. "In the last two or three years, the reaction has been, 'This is so great, why haven't I heard of it?'"

A common interest

At the official launch of Autogas for America at a National Propane Gas Association meeting, Weidie pitched the group as a unifying force for industry.

"Autogas for America is a platform to pull all of us together as an industry," Weidie said. "We don't want anybody that's interested in the market to get isolated."

According to the NPGA website, there are 8,000 retail propane companies in the United States, many of which tend to be small, family-owned businesses. The propane market is dominated by home heating and other domestic or business uses, such as grilling. Transportation makes up 3 percent of propane demand, according to a 2006 survey by the American Petroleum Institute.

"I don't think there's anyone that opposes propane growing in the engine area. I think there are a number of companies that for their own business purposes stay in their own markets," said Phil Squair, NPGA senior vice president. "We have a large membership with a lot of different interests. ... I don't think you can characterize it as not being supportive just because they choose not to pursue."

Even though autogas offers the industry a stable, year-round funding source, many companies do not see the need to expand beyond the local home heating market. In helping to announce the Autogas for America launch, NPGA President Richard Rollden addressed those concerns head on, calling on the meeting's attendees to help "reshape the brand."

"When propane first started off, it was a fuel to light your house," he said. "Then it became heating. ... We wouldn't be talking about climate change and energy legislation, but it's happening, and we have to talk about it."

Faced with that necessity, the industry has some catching up to do. In the 1980s, there were hundreds of thousands of such vehicles on the road in America. The fuel's stock stayed high for years, with a 1995 Department of Energy study calling propane the "alternative fuel of choice" in the future and predicting that 16 percent of the light-duty vehicle fleet would run on propane.

However, the fuel's popularity stagnated here as it rose abroad. There are now 14 million autogas vehicles in use around the world, but 200,000 of them are in the United States.

In that time, various autogas alliances have come and gone, most notably the Propane Vehicle Council, which was started in 1994 to establish equitable tax policies for propane gas, but soon evolved to incorporate more fuel and vehicle development. The council split in 2004, with its legislative functions being folded into the NPGA and its other responsibilities, including product development, going to the Propane Education Research Council.

Without a strong group lobbying for tax benefits and better infrastructure, Weidie said the cost benefits of propane simply "went away," causing the industry's setbacks.

PERC Vice President Brian Feehan, who was executive director of PVC and headed the coordinating committee during the transition, said the autogas field has grown since the group was disbanded.

"From my perspective, we've seen a dramatic change," Feehan said, noting industry groups like Alliance Autogas and CleanFuel USA. "There are so many opportunities that companies can bring autogas. Even if you didn't want to support that specific market, there are benefits in terms of increased availability of supply."

Feehan praised Autogas for America as a "great mechanism and platform for uniting the industry." PERC, which was established by Congress, is prohibited from influencing elections and legislation, leaving a void at the top of the industry.

Organizers joke about comparing themselves to Pickens, but the industry really could use a figurehead. During the launch, organizers all pointed out their lobbying effort was small and scattered compared with the natural gas effort but hoped they could surpass it with a unified plan.

"From a global perspective, the autogas market has been growing rather robustly. I think our own industry has taken a comprehensive approach, not just from the market and research and development sides," Feehan said.

Weidie is hoping that plan can manifest itself in the fleet industry, where autogas has already made some inroads. Some bus systems or smaller fleets, such as taxis or police troopers, use the fuel, since they can set up a centralized fueling station and capitalize on the cheaper prices. Fleets also tend to buy in large orders of anywhere from 100 to 1,000 vehicles, adding more market power.

Automakers have been reciprocating, rolling out conversion or propane-only vehicles. Ford Motor Co., for example, released propane options for its E-series and is working on engines for the F-super duty line. Rob Stevens, Ford's chief engineer for commercial vehicles, said the company had already sold thousands of the E-series, which had engines specially adapted for both LPG and compressed natural gas, or CNG. Ford found that the fuels were so appealing, some customers had been upfitting their own engines.

"We saw well over a year ago that there was interest that was building. It created this methodology to work with upfitters and our customers to offer up something that would really be a good quality execution," Stevens said. "What we don't want to see if people upfitting when vehicles aren't ready for it and they could have premature wear."

Several other fleet vehicles, including the Lincoln Town Car and General Motors Co.'s 6.0-liter engine line, have picked up the fuel. But passenger cars seem largely out of the question, at least for now.

"We try to measure things in five-year increments. We're working on trying to develop a thick, robust fleet market in the next five years," Feehan said. "A consumer use is not precluded now, but as we start to see the increase of market penetration and seeing significant infrastructure, that becomes more of a reality."

Cleaner and easier

Once the vehicles are out, Wiedie thinks autogas will be an easy sell, especially given its environmental benefits. According to data compiled by PERC that included upstream emissions, LPG has fewer total CO2-equivalent emissions than gasoline and electric. A direct comparison with conventional gasoline in a 2009 Lincoln Town Car showed a 23 percent reduction in carbon monoxide, a 42 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide and an 11 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

Andy Burnham, a fuel and vehicle systems analyst with Argonne National Laboratory who has studied propane gas, said the fuel was "in the same ballpark" as CNG in emissions. PERC analysis found that LPG and CNG were equitable, with CNG registering just 3.3 kilograms less of carbon dioxide equivalent per million British thermal units.

However, Weidie pointed out one key advantage of LPG: More than 90 percent of the world's supply is produced in the United States, with another 7 percent coming from Canada. Another advantage: The infrastructure is easy.

"There's already a pipeline system, and the infrastructure network exists," Weidie said. "We can get it to every locale right now."

What's more, the fueling stations can be set up in a matter of days for just $15,000 because the fuel can be stored in a liquid state in large tanks. Natural gas, meanwhile, needs a compression system. The rise of liquid propane injection engines, which delivers the fuel straight into the combustion cylinder, makes such storage facilities more viable. Propane can also be stored in large vertical tanks that do not need to be buried or have a large footprint on the area.

That ease of infrastructure has turned many fleets on to propane fuel. Don Francis, the director of Clean Cities Atlanta, said a number of sheriff's offices in the metro region and a U-Haul fleet had adopted propane vehicles in part because they could have cheap, convenient central fueling stations.

But a lack of vehicles has somewhat hampered propane adoption in his area, Francis said.

"Most fleets don't like conversions," he said, referring to conventional engines that have been adapted for propane. "They don't like to mess with warranty issues."

Still, Francis said with more products and more government help, he expected more fleets in the area to use propane. He advises fleets differently based on needs, pitching electric to fleets like the U.S. Postal Service that drive short distances and recommending natural gas for cars running along known routes. Autogas, he said, works well for fleets going long distances or driving around all day, since they can store additional fuel in tanks in the car.

"With all the emphasis now on petroleum reduction strategies primarily focused on reducing foreign imports, [propane] has gotten more attention," Francis said. "It's domestically sourced, it's cheaper. ... Part of my role is to just keep beating the drum and get information out there."

Atlanta will also be using federal grant money to install public-access natural gas fueling stations around the city in the hopes it can accelerate public adoption of propane and CNG. The 16 other clean cities group in Autogas for America are also hoping to boost fleet involvement for anything from taxis to construction vehicles.


Autogas backers face an uphill battle in pushing their fuel, as several tax credits are set to expire at the end of the year. The group is pushing for a renewal of the Alternative Motor Vehicle Credit, a 50 percent credit on the purchase of an autogas vehicle or conversion of conventional vehicle, and the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Refueling Property Credit, a 50 percent credit for installing a refueling station.

But the most imperative, in Weidie's eyes, is a 50-cent-per-gallon alternative fuel tax that expired at the end of 2009. A renewal passed the House but is still being debated in the Senate.

NPGA's Squair said he thought the prospects were good on getting those three credits through Congress, whether on their own or as part of a larger energy package. He said all three were necessary to getting widespread acceptance of the fuel, calling them the "three legs of the stool."

Weidie would also like to see some changes to the current EPA policy that adds too much cost and bureaucracy to owning a propane vehicle. Currently, certifications need to be renewed every year, and the fees can be costly. For fleets, that can mean the price-per-vehicle is prohibitive.

The autogas industry is also facing competition from other alternative forms of transportation, some with significantly larger lobbies. Organizers noted that they are dwarfed by natural gas, but electric vehicles have recently begun to capture the attention of the transportation sector. Legislation being debated in Congress would put significant funding toward electric car infrastructure and adoption, with large tax credits already in place.

Weidie said there is a place for all types of vehicles, including autogas.

"We don't view ourselves as competition," he said. "The technology is going to improve. But if we want to have an impact right here, right now, [autogas is] right here, right now."

- Jason Plautz, E&E reporter

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