July 6, 2013
Now that it’s barbecue season, many of us will be refilling tanks of propane for the grill. But another way people are using propane is as an alternative fuel for cars. The technology to power cars on propane has been around since the 1970s, but it hasn’t been adopted by the average driver. However, some cab drivers are making the switch to propane to power their cars right here in our region.
After a Yellow Cab hub in Pittsburgh installed a propane refueling station last year, Monty Montgomery, who’s driven a cab here for six years, noticed the financial benefits. Montgomery pays $143 to lease a cab every day, and he’s responsible for fueling it. He switched from a regular gasoline vehicle to a propane powered one.
"It’s usually a dollar or so cheaper than regular gas. That’s a big difference in my line of work. Plus it’s more convenient to fill up at the headquarters and the company gives us the opportunity to pay it back the next day. So it’s convenient, it saves money and it’s convenient when you don’t have to throw your cash out right away, so it helps," says Montgomery.
He hasn’t done the math on the exact savings, but Pittsburgh Yellow Cab officials estimate that a typical driver could save $2,300 per year or more. As we drove around Pittsburgh’s North Shore, Montgomery did a little demo of how his hybrid Crown Victoria works.
"See here if I push this button by the steering wheel, see where this gauge is That gauge tells you if the propane is full or empty. When I push this button like so, you feel that. It automatically switches over to the regular gas tank. I have a regular gas and I have propane, so the propane runs out it just automatically switches it up. I don’t even have to touch the button. So that’s where the convenience is," says Montgomery.
The Department of Energy says propane burns cleaner than gasoline and diesel because of its lower carbon content. It also says using propane in place of petroleum-based fuels may reduce some tailpipe emissions. Unfortunately for its supporters, there are stumbling blocks to propane’s increased use in vehicles.
Some consumers fear that propane is more likely to explode than gasoline. Pat Davis, the Department of Energy's vehicle technologies program manager, says you shouldn’t worry about that any more than you would with a regular car.
"There is nothing inherently more dangerous about it than gasoline. They can both be used safely when used with proper precautions and storage," says Davis.
Jeff Petrash, General Council of Legislative Affairs of the Natural Propane Gas Association, says he believes that other barriers, like a lack of infrastructure, are disappearing.
"Over the last 10 years across America, you’ve seen quite a bit of increase in fueling stations for all three types of vehicles. So that will, I think, produce an upsurge in propane vehicles," says Petrash.
Petrash also points out that the huge increase in natural gas development has led to an increase in the production of propane. Seventy percent of the nation’s propane supply comes from natural gas.
"In fact if you were to talk to some of the producers of natural gas right now, they are targeting natural gas streams that are rich with liquids like propane because they’re actually more valuable than the natural gas that comes with it. So there has been a significant increase in propane as well, and we expect that to continue," says Petrash.
Back in the Yellow Cab, I had one more question for Montgomery-- whether the conversion left him with a smooth ride.
"No. Actually now, we’re riding on propane. See how it has power, same amount of power. When I switch it over to the regular gas, you ready? There is no difference. I haven’t had any problems. Haven’t had a breakdown yet," he says.
According to the Department of Energy, propane is currently the world's third most common engine fuel.
Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, along with its partners at Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities, will hold free workshops in Erie and Clearfield counties for private and municipal fleet owners and operators, trucking companies, school districts, and alternative fuel station developers.
The Erie workshop will be held Thursday, Aug. 1, at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center at Presque Isle State Park. The Clearfield workshop is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 8, at Lock Haven University’s Clearfield Campus. Workshops run from 9 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.
Attendees will learn the benefits of operating fleet vehicles using alternative fuels, such as compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), and propane (LPG). Speakers will provide information on the growing natural gas fueling infrastructure in Pennsylvania, and how to apply for Alternative Fuel Incentive and Act 13 Natural Gas Vehicle grants. Several alternative fuel vehicles and school buses will be available for viewing at each workshop.