Alternative Fuels Look Better as Gasoline Prices Rise

With the price of gasoline creeping toward the $3-a-gallon mark, Fred Isaac and Cary Clingan can expect the phone calls to start coming. Isaac is the manager and Clingan is the service manager of Reliable Propane, with offices in Broken Arrow and Coweta.
Their vehicles run on propane, and at $1.56 a gallon, that is a bargain compared to the cost of regular self serve.
When gasoline prices climbed to $3.90 a gallon a year ago they were getting 10 calls a day from people wanting to convert their engines to propane.
Paul Laney, owner of Liberty Propane in Cookson, recalls the “golden age” of conversions during the early 1980s.
The demand was so great that Laney remembers, “we could do five conversions a day.” The cost per conversion was about $950.
The overwhelming demand lasted until about 1983 when gasoline supply caught up and the price dropped like a rock. Once the bottom on gasoline prices fell out, so did demand for propane conversions. The conversion business vanished.
Oklahoma is fortunate to have an abundance of both fuels. The state is the third-largest natural gas producer in the nation. Propane, or liquefied petroleum gas, is abundant because so many rural areas are beyond the reach of electric wire and natural gas lines.
Propane is used by millions of Americans each day. People are familiar with propane because they use around their homes for heating, in water heaters, air conditioners, outdoor grills, fireplaces and appliances. On farms propane is used for pest control, crop drying and irrigation pumps. In industry, propane is used on forklifts and in fleet vehicles.
Propane is also used as a fuel for cellular tower generators. Propane is the fuel of choice when the generator kicks in because the fuel can sit idle for weeks or even months without it breaking down like gasoline or growing bacteria like diesel.
Compressed natural gas gets all the attention today as an alternative fuel because it is so abundant.
Both are clean burning. Isaac, Clingan and Laney all talk about driving vehicles for hundreds of thousands of miles with virtually no carbon build up.
Propane is convenient. In the U.S. there are about 70,000 miles of interstate pipelines and more than 25,000 retail dealers making propane readily available. And because propane is stored in portable tanks, it can be used in areas beyond gas mains.
Range is a big factor. Both fuels offer about 10 miles per gallon but because propane can be stored under 250 pounds of proessure versus 3,500 psi for CNG, vehicles are able to travel further on a tank.
Improvements in coatings created a trend to bury large tanks underground because propane is a nontoxic, nonpoisonous fuel that doesn’t contaminate the soil. Refueling a propane vehicle takes about the same amount of time as refueling a gasoline vehicle. Nationwide, propane refueling infrastructure consists of more than 10,000 public and private sites.
In Oklahoma, there are 64 propane motor vehicle stations. CNG is not as convenient but there are 50 refueling stations across the state including about a half dozen in the Tulsa market. There are a total of 132 stations across the state, according the Alternative Fuels Data Center Web site.
Congress has encouraged conversion of cars to CNG with a tax credits of up to 50 percent of the auto conversion cost and the CNG home filling station cost. Conversions for both propane and CNG are about the same — $5,000 — both requires a certificate and must be inspected.
People in the alternative fuel sector are realistic. They know the market will not change until gasoline goes north of $4 a gallon and stays there for months. They may not have to wait much longer.

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