Is Propane Fuel Getting a Fair Shake?

Globally, propane is the most widely used “alternative” car fuel -- and for good reason. Propane fuel is abundant, relatively inexpensive and sourced in North America. It also burns clean. A recent study by the Argonne National Laboratory, based in Chicago, was just one of many pointing out the real advantages of using propane as a transportation fuel.

These arguments have largely fallen on deaf ears in the Obama administration and the U.S. Senate. Both the administration and Senate seem intent on vehicle electrification at the expense of other technologies. The U.S. Senate bills S.3495 and S.3815, respectively titled Promoting Electric Vehicles Act of 2010 and Promoting Natural Gas and Electric Vehicles Act of 2010, both exclude propane and other forms of alternative engine fuels.

Propane: Long History, Many Advantages
Many auto industry experts believe this is a shame and an injustice, since propane offers so many advantages. A key advantage: Propane -- often referred to as “autogas” when used as a transportation fuel-- is not experimental. Quite the contrary: It has been used as a vehicle fuel since 1912. By the 1920s, several automotive fleets in California used propane as fuel, and in the 1950s propane-powered buses and taxis were common in Midwestern cities. According to the Energy Information Administration, some 158,000 propane-powered vehicles operated in the United States in 2008. The World LP Gas Association says more than 13 million propane-fueled vehicles were in use worldwide in 2009.

Propane is so widely popular  largely because conventional internal combustion engines can easily adapt to using it. While a switch to battery electric vehicles would require a revolution in the car manufacturing industry, a move to use propane in a higher percentage of cars could be accomplished with much less cost and complication.

A byproduct of natural gas processing and oil refining, propane auto fuel contains high octane levels and key properties required for spark-ignited internal combustion engines. As the Argonne National Laboratory report noted, “To operate a vehicle on propane as either a dedicated fuel or bi-fuel (i.e., switching between gasoline and propane) vehicle, only a few modifications must be made to the engine.” Simply put, propane-powered vehicles will be much less expensive to consumers than hybrid or battery electric vehicles of equivalent size.

Clean Enough?
But are propane-powered cars sanitary? Differences of opinion over what’s “clean enough” provided the basis of contention and spurred the current Senate proposals to ignore propane and other alternative fuels. There’s no doubt propane burns cleaner than gasoline or diesel; according to a recent Energetics study, propane contains up to 20 percent less nitrogen oxide and up to 60 percent less carbon monoxide than gasoline. It also yields 24 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and fewer particulate emissions. s

Those pushing battery electric cars want no combustion at all; however, they seem to overlook the fact that a high percentage of the electricity generated today involves some form of combustion. Those emissions don’t come from a vehicle tailpipe -- but from a smokestack somewhere else.

So is propane getting a fair shake? Are consumers well-served by government actions that ignore less expensive solutions to air quality issues while pushing a single technology? At least one expert on the subject doesn’t think so. 

“Propane autogas historically costs around 30 percent less than gasoline, and is as clean as natural gas, but without the harmful methane emissions,” said Jack Roush, a well-known motorsports figure and chairman of ROUSH Enterprises, a company that has done a great deal of work in propane conversions. “Propane is available ‘right here, right now,’ and I feel that any alternative fuel legislation would do our country an injustice if it were to pass into law without including propane auto gas, and for that matter, all alternative fuels, in the legislation.”