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Propane: A New Alternative Fuel for Vehicles?


When you hear about alternative fuels for gasoline, what comes to mind?  Most likely, you’re thinking about liquefied natural gas.  While that is the most popular substitute, it is not the only one breaking ground.  This may come as a surprise, but propane could be the next big fuel for vehicles.

Technically, using propane as fuel is not exactly new.  Managing Director of Propane Fuel Technologies Bret Chandler claims that “liquid propane is the third most-used auto fuel in the world.”  He states, “Ten years ago, there were 700 liquid propane fueling stations in Germany, now there are 5,000.”  Even though Europe has had a slight head start, the United States is following closely behind.

Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) has already been introduced in certain areas, such as warehouses, construction sites, and farms.  Additionally, the Propane Education and Research Council claims there are over 270,000 on-road propane vehicles already in the United States.  These vehicles are mostly used as police cars, shuttles, and school buses.

California residents are among the first citizens to have access to this new source of fuel.  As stated on the California Energy Commission website-

Approximately 1,200 facilities in California dispense propane.  Nearly all of these facilities are used primarily to fuel residential and commercial applications such as heaters, recreational vehicles and barbecues.  About half of all these facilities are capable of providing propane as a motor fuel, though only about 3 percent of all the fuel dispensed is used for transportation applications.

Chandler, who has also been working with CleanFUEL, has the goal of bringing this propane technology to his home state of West Virginia.  His biggest hurdle: infrastructure.  Unfortunately, there are only a small number of fueling stations in the area.

To aid the process, CleanFUEL has recently been given a $12 million federal grant from the Department of Energy, which they plan to use for building 168 propane-fueling stations in 16 cities across the country.

Commonly referred to as “autogas” outside the United States, liquid propane may not be as efficient as gasoline (about 7 to 10 percent less efficient), but the low cost will certainly make up for that.  In Dallas, TX, where propane is rather common, customers are paying around $1.50 per gallon.

The cost to build the necessary infrastructure is rather inexpensive as well.  A natural gas fueling station could cost up to $1.5 million to build, but for a propane station, that tab will drop to less than $100,000.  As an added benefit, propane fueling stations require less expensive equipment and only occupy one tenth of the space required by natural gas stations.

So, should you expect to see herds of propane vehicles on the road and dozens of fueling stations popping up around town this year?  Probably not.  With a price tag of $10,000, converting your car to run on propane may not be the best decision.  Yet.

Sarah Battaglia
Energy Curtailment Specialists, Inc.

Image: Propane Cylinders via Shutterstock

Sarah Battaglia's picture

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John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jan 16, 2013 10:01 pm GMT

Sarah, LPG has historically been a reasonably attractive alternative motor fuel for many decades.  Following the OPEC energy crises of the 1970’s-early 1980’s LPG motor fuels peaked at 30 thousand barrels per day (KBD).  Due to a number of market and mixed Government support, LPG motor fuels dropped to a minimum of 9 KBD in 2000.  Relatively cheaper LPG (compared to gasoline) has contributed to recent increased LPG motor fuels consumption up to about 22 KBD today.  Current LPG Transportation sector consumption only consumes about 1% of total U.S. LPG consumed; 2200 KBD.  As you state, expanding the LPG fueling infrastructure is potentially very cost competitive to natural gas (CNG or LNG).

One of the concerns with increased LPG consumption in the past has been energy security.  Today the U.S. imports about 10% of total LPG supplied (consumed); about 230 KBD.  This energy security concern should drop in the future with continued increases in U.S. natural gas production.  Large volumes of natural gas liquids are produced with the (dry) natural gas, which includes significant volumes of LPG.  LPG imports should be expected to decrease with total domestic natural gas production increases in the future.

John Miller

Sarah Battaglia's picture
Sarah Battaglia on Jan 17, 2013 6:36 pm GMT

Thanks for your feedback, John. I agree with you that the concern for energy security should drop in the future, but how long is that predicted to take? You mentioned that LPG has been a reasonable fuel alternative decades ago, but it is still not a very popular choice among consumers. Although, natural gas production has certainly increased in recent years, so perhaps we will see more LPG being used sooner rather than later.

juninho baiano's picture
juninho baiano on Jan 18, 2013 5:24 pm GMT

LPG prices have dropped recently and Platt's has a good article about how producers are gearing up to export propane in the future:

Also, what would be very intersting from an energy security standpoint is if Dimethly-ether (DME) can achieve a breakthrough.  It has roughly the same atmospheric pressure as LPG and in places like China, DME is mixed with LPG to create a DME-LPG mix of roughly 30%-70%.  The great thing about DME is that it can be produced from natural gas and can be run in Diesel engines with minimal changes.  Let's see what happens on this front...    

Sarah Battaglia's picture
Sarah Battaglia on Jan 21, 2013 12:55 pm GMT

Interesting article, Juninho. I wonder how efficient the DME-LPG mix would be in comparison to natural gas.

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