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With gas prices so high, why no rush to propane?

Published December 3, 2012

There was a time when rising oil prices and gasoline shortages made fuels like propane, natural gas and biodiesel popular alternatives, but where are they now?

The 30 propane stations scattered around the GTA these days is a paltry sum when there were hundreds in the 80s and 90s and though they’re mostly found today where taxis and fleet vehicles fill up around the airport and industrial zones, liquid petroleum gas (LPG) is still the most practical alternative fuel for internal combustion engines.

A by-product of natural gas processing and crude oil refining, propane has a well-established infrastructure and it’s really the only alternate fuel that can be purchased from coast to coast and in all the urban and rural areas in between.

It’s cheap at half the price of gasoline, Canada’s got a wealth of it on hand and in the ground, it burns cleaner than gasoline, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by up to 27 per cent, and produces 50 per cent fewer toxins and other smog-causing pollutants than gasoline.

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With an octane rating of 110, propane can also fulfill the high performance needs of supercharged engines and advances in fuel injection technology over the last 20 years have made LPG a viable fuel option for all vehicles in all seasons.

Natural gas availability for the average motorist disappeared in Ontario when Shell began closing its outlets in 2011 but it is used by various public and private fleets in the transit, transport and utility sectors, as is biodiesel in both cities and in farming regions.

While hydrogen can be used both in fuel cells to power electric motors or burned in internal combustion engines, it’s still expensive to produce and hard to find unless you live in British Columbia where BC Transit operates the largest fleet of its kind in the world with 20 fuel cell buses.

Ethanol and methanol are derived from crop sources such as corn, sugar, grains and wood, and are used as fuels and fuel additives, among many other things, but they come at the price of using up valuable sources of food.

Leading the Canadian charge toward kicking the gasoline dependence habit is Surrey, B.C., where the city council is planning a new bylaw requiring all new gas stations to include alternative fuel sources such as an electric vehicle charging station, compressed natural gas, hydrogen, or propane.

In California just about every alternative fuel is available to the consumer and Brazil, Norway, Sweden and Japan lead the world when it comes to finding ways to use less gasoline.

Of all of the available alternate fuels used in Canada propane appears to be the best positioned as a practical alternative auto fuel source with an established distribution infrastructure, a seemingly endless supply and at a cost per litre in the 60 cent range in Southern Ontario.

About 40 per cent of the propane produced in Canada is used domestically with 60 per cent being exported.

So why has propane, the most likely alternative fuel option to gasoline, not caught on with the average motorist when so many transportation fleets across the country, including Canada Post, United Parcel Service (UPS), TransHelp patient transfer in Peel Region, the London Police Service, Airways Transit, ThyssenKrupp Elevator and the City of Prince George, have been driving on it for years?

“The key to switching would start with the car manufacturers,” said Jim Facette, president and CEO of the Canadian Propane Association. “If they offered propane-ready vehicles to the consumer and the consumer has the infrastructure available it’s at that point we can see it happening.”

“Where you will find quite a few propane filling outlets is B.C., especially in Victoria, because British Columbia has a history of supporting auto propane and to this day about 50 per cent of the gas stations sell propane (in the Victoria area),” added.

Facette said the ratio of propane fleets is greater in B.C. because the province has close access to Alberta’s and its own fuel production and they have also maintained and advanced their propane infrastructure more than other provinces.

At a transportation industry summit held in that province last May a fleet manager from Prince George pointed out the return on investing in vehicle conversion from gas to propane came in less than a year due to the fuel cost savings, Facette pointed out.

Aftermarket vehicle conversion for cars and trucks can range from $4,500 to $6,000, but would be drastically cheaper if LGP systems were built-in by car manufactures.

“It’s starting all over again,” said George Olah, vice-president of Alliance AutoGas, a firm that converts vehicle fleets to operate on propane and provides fuelling equipment and training.

“I call it the alternative fuels merry-go-round, where you go through a cycle until the next fuel darling comes up, but now propane auto gas has way better technology than back in the 80s when they were basically converting the equipment from fork lifts and slapping them onto taxi cabs. It worked, but in the old and inferior carburetor systems,” Olah added.

A Bolton electrician Olah knows was spending $6,000 a year on fuel, but after converting his van his annual fuel cost dropped to half that and has since more than paid for the conversion.

“For the cab driver saving money is a key concern and the same goes for the delivery business, school buses, and other transporters — that’s where the big money is being saved right now.”

“Here’s my own example,” Olah said about the day to day savings propane offers him.

“I filled up my Titan (Nissan pickup) in Toronto for a shade under 30 bucks and drove to Kingston where I went around to see some customers before going on to Cornwall. On the way back I stopped in Gananoque to fill up. All that distance (about 590 km) for 30 dollars.”

General Motors and Ford do make propane kit ready vehicles in North America that carry the same warranties as all their vehicles, but we are still way behind the Europeans, Facette said.

“They call it auto gas in Europe, where you can actually pull your car up to a gas station, fill it up yourself and pay for it as we do with gas here. More European car manufacturers produce propane vehicles. There’s the infrastructure and the demand. We’re not at that critical mass or tipping point yet, so the challenge is going forward,” he added.

Since the 70s Europeans have been paying a lot more for gasoline than North Americans, so they had more reason to find a cheaper alternative.

Facette said another hurdle in getting people to switch to propane is people’s perception. When they hear the word propane they only see it as a barbecue fuel and they recall the 20-year-old image of the large tank in taxi trunks and of course the smell when tanks are being refuelled, which is a safety additive as propane has no odor.

Modern tanks are positioned beneath the vehicle so no interior space is taken up.

Since 1994 the price of propane in Ontario has been more than 40 per cent less than the cost of gas according to the website www.propanefacts.ca which lists the current fleet price per litre at $0.455 in Toronto, $ 0.447 in London, $0.492 in Ottawa and $0.463 in Montreal.

That’s for businesses that maintain fleets with their own purchased or leased on-site tank and filling systems, whereas the actual street price is higher but still way cheaper than gasoline.

Toronto Auto Wash, an Esso station on Rexdale Blvd. near Martin Grove Rd. in Etobicoke, was selling propane this week at $0.589 per litre, which is just about the cheapest price in the country.

Propane is about 35 per cent less energy dense than gasoline, so a greater quantity of propane is required to travel the same distance as gasoline. It is stored in tanks that regulate pressure levels in response to sudden changes in temperature. Tanks have an 80 per cent maximum capacity in order to account for these changes in pressure levels.

The liquid propane is converted into a gas by a vapourizing regulator that controls the supply of propane to the engine. Once converted, the gas is mixed with filtered air before entering the combustion chambers.

Canada Post has more than 9,300 vehicles that travel more than 72 million kilometres per year burning 21 million litres of fuel and the national postal delivery corporation has travelled 190 million kms on alternate fuels since the late 70s,” said Steve Clark, fleet manager at Canada Post in Ottawa.

Clark said the company runs 130 propane fuelled vehicles across Canada, 14 battery powered electric vehicles and five gas-electric hybrids in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa. A Canada Post pilot project in London is testing 10 natural gas vehicles.

“We realize we have an obligation as Canada’s second largest federal fleet to invest in new and emerging technology,” he said on the phone from Edmonton last week, where the postal service is testing new liquid propane injectors in its LPG run fleet, to avoid running gasoline to warm up engines in extreme cold before the propane takes over in the duel fuel system.

Edmonton’s temperature was 15 below zero with the wind chill at 24 below as the tests were being conducted.

“If it proves successful this winter then it won’t matter how cold it gets. It will always start and run on propane and we can eliminate the gasoline side of the equation and we won’t have to carry around fuel for the sole purpose of warming the engine, so we’ll have less fuel, less weight, less fuel consumption and better emissions.

“It (LPG) definitely burns cleaner (than gas), you can extend your oil changes and reduce your waste streams as a result. There was a period we stopped using propane in the past, but we’ve re-entered that realm in the last three years and for the most part it’s been very successful,” Clark added.

With 11 billion litres of propane produced in Canada annually, 80 per cent of which is extracted from natural gas at hundreds of field plants in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan with the remaining supply coming from 16 refineries located in every province except Manitoba and PEI, it’s a wonder why we haven’t caught on to what the Europeans have known for decades.

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