Oklahoma is a national leader in innovative alternative fuels programs, and one fuel tops them all, but few ever think of it in terms of transportation.
Today, more than 10 million vehicles worldwide run on liquefied petroleum gas — or propane — a fuel that delivers high-octane power but fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. Propane by-products are water and carbon dioxide.
The fuel emits considerably less nitrous oxide and particulate pollution than diesel.
The most widely used alternative fuel, propane remains the third most common engine fuel today, after gasoline and diesel. Increasing the use of this cheap fuel in select vehicle fleets by 10 percent could displace nearly 1 billion gallons of gasoline by 2017.
And, the price is right at about $2 per gallon.
Yet, other than the backyard gas grill or the cylinder tanks seen in rural areas, few think of propane as a viable alternative fuel.
The state has a network of more than 80 LPG (propane) fuel stations. Yet, with only around 30 compressed natural gas fuel stations and more than 23,000 alternative fueled vehicles on the road, CNG remains the glamor alternative fuel.
“We are the step-child of CNG,” said Fred Isaac, manager of Broken Arrow-based Reliable Propane.
One of the pluses touted by backers of CNG is that it is an ultra-clean burning vapor. Propane is a liquid under pressure. Since it is heavier than air, it sinks, creating a “pooling” effect. However, propane won’t ignite when combined with air unless the source of ignition reaches at least 940 degrees. In contrast, gasoline ignites when the source of ignition reaches only 430 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Using propane in vehicles has become difficult over the past decade, but it remains an excellent alternative, said Richard Hess, executive director the Oklahoma Propane Gas Association. Auto makers have made truck and car engines more complex to add propane as an alternative, but not impossible.
“I don’t know that their changes made engines too complex to add propane as an alternative fuel SEmD it has made it more difficult,” Hess said. “And, sometimes it is difficult to get information from the manufacturers about the changes in order to make the conversions.”
When car makers shifted the technology to fuel injection, it made it harder to convert cars, said Isaac.
“Propane can mesh with the newer technology,” Hess said. “It is a little more difficult and a bit more expensive.”
Today The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires engines to be certified annually, which forces owners to spend the time and expanse to certify the engine. However, there are efforts to loosen that rule.
“It’s forced you to become an auto mechanic to convert to propane,” Isaac said. “It has made it harder.”
Converting engines to run propane had its hey-day in the late 1970s and early ‘80s when gasoline was scarce. Dozens of shops would charge less than $1,000 to add a conversion kit. Today, there are two dealers in Oklahoma — Seminole and Chandler — that install the kits. The cost runs between $3,000 and $5,000, said Paul Laney, who has served on several state boards over the decades. He is director of the Oklahoma Propane Gas Association and chairman of the LP Gas Research and Marketing Safety Commission.
There is a reward, however, for performing the conversions. The federal and state governments give hefty tax credits to motorists and companies that make the conversions — up to 50 percent of the cost of conversion.
Back in the Day
“In 1980, we could not keep up with the conversions,” Laney said. “There were hundreds of dealers in Oklahoma, a directory of where you could fill up across the U.S. Everything was great.”
CNG was in its infancy and the technology of the day only allowed vehicles to go 50 to 75 miles between fill-ups.
“ONG converted the governor’s Lincoln,” Laney said. “But when they drove to Tulsa they would run out of gas at Stroud. We put in a propane system and he could make the round trip and had fuel to spare.”
Propane sold for 50 cents a gallon then. But once gasoline became plentiful and the price collapsed, the propane conversion industry was dead.
“We’ve been spoiled by cheap gasoline,” said Isaac. “Gasoline has to get up and stay there for months before there is a market. There is no demand.”
Today, there are about 200 dealers in the state and sales for each dealers runs an average 750,000 to 1 million gallons a year.
“The propane market and infrastructure in the state and U.S. was developed without any incentive or government program,” Isaac said. “It came about with no fanfare. It just came about by the free market because it made sense.”
The market today remains strongest in rural Oklahoma and in resort areas. Laney, based in Commune, owns a distributorship in the Lake Tenkiller area.
“When they extend the natural gas line, I lose customers,” Laney said. “I just go further out.”
He services units in an 25 to 30 mile radius.
“We are a small industry,” he said. “People are aware of propane because of their gas grills. But, I bet you could go to Washington and more than 50 percent of the lawmakers there would not know what you are talking about,” Laney said.
The industry just needs a champion.