Pushing for propane

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Using propane as an engine fuel makes complete sense simply by looking at the return on investment. Fleets can save tens of thousands of dollars over the life of the van or truck and that alone is worth switching to propane even before you factor in the cleaner emissions and reduction in foreign oil dependency.” –Jack Roush, CEO of Roush Enterprises

I got the opportunity to talk with Jack Roush last year about the virtues of propane as a vehicle fuel -- and it’s needless to say he’s a true believer in the stuff.

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What’s important here, though – at least in my view – is that Jack isn’t an idealistic dreamer on this subject. In fact, Roush started out in 1964 as an engineer for Ford Motor Co., moving on to pursue his own specialized interests in engine development and motorsports.

He formed Jack Roush Performance Engineering, a precursor of today’s Roush Industries, in 1976 and Roush Racing in 1988 and is today one of the premier names associated with the sport of stock car racing.

All of that tells me that Roush doesn’t get involved in business ventures that don’t offer his company a viable future – meaning the involvement of the Roush Performance arm of his company in the propane vehicle market isn’t due to some “do-gooder” impulse. He really thinks propane is going to become a popular alternative fuel in the not-so-distant future.

[Here, Todd Mouw, Roush’s director of sales and marketing, gives an overview as to some the advantages of using propane as a vehicle fuel.]

Right now, Roush offers several vehicle models running on liquid propane: Ford E-150 / E-250 / E-350 passenger and cargo van equipped with the 5.4L V8s plus F-150, F-250, and F-350 trucks. The E-Series vans, it should be noted, achieve Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle II emission standards, which, on average, results in 90% cleaner emissions than the average new model year car or truck.

A bit of background first, here. Propane got listed as an approved alternative clean fuel within the 1990 Clean Air Act, followed soon thereafter as an approved alternative fuel in the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

The big reasons why propane got this designation is that it produces up to 20% less oxides of nitrogen (NOx), up to 60% less carbon monoxide, 24% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and fewer particulate emissions when compared to gasoline. Also, 90% of the propane used today in the U.S. comes from domestic sources of production – mainly as a byproduct of natural gas and petroleum refining.

In 1996, Congress formed the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) with the passage of Public Law 104-284, known as the Propane Education and Research Act (PERA) to promote the safe, efficient use of odorized propane gas as a preferred energy source.

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Today, propane is roughly a $10 billion industry in the U.S., with the country consuming more than 15 billion gallons annually for home, agricultural, industrial, and commercial uses. It's become one of the most common alternative fuels around the globe, powering over 13 million vehicles worldwide.

And we’re talking commercial vehicles here, too – not necessarily big rigs, but definitely medium-duty units. Take Schwan’s Home Service, for example, which operates one of the largest direct-to-home food delivery businesses in the U.S.

Today, almost 90% of Schwan’s 6,000 trucks run on propane: trucks that are also roughly 6,000 pounds lighter, resulting in increased fuel economy. The company even recently redesigned its truck fleet to capitalize on the “green” image possibilities of using propane as well.

“While our customers are sure to recognize the outside of our trucks, it is important that they know that inside there is a fuel efficient machine that is safer for our environment,” noted Scott McNair, president of The Schwan Food Company.

In fact, company founder Marvin Schwan began using propane in his trucks in the early 1970s in response to the oil embargoes. The investment made to use propane has not only been efficient and better for the environment, but also economical, as the company has saved millions of dollars since the 1970s, McNair said.

Then take Prime Time Shuttle that serves southern California. Prime Time is replacing its fleet of 200 shuttle buses with 200 liquid propane-powered Ford E-350s over the next 24 months. Today, each of its gasoline-powered shuttle vans consumes more than 7,500 gallons annually; by switching to propane, Prime Time should save more than 1.5 million gallons of gasoline each year.

[Below is a recent interview with Tom Arnold, Roush’s manufacturing director, about the propane injected F-150 they've developed.]

Then there’s Ferrellgas Partners, one of the U.S.’s largest propane distributors, out there banging the propane drum via a nationwide tour of 5.4L V-8 propane powered Ford F-250 for the last year.

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Ferrellgas’s 2010 Roush liquid propane injected F-250 offers the same horsepower (300 hp) and torque (365 ft-lbs) as a comparable gasoline-powered truck, equipped with in-bed tank provides about 55-gallons of propane, resulting in a range in excess of 500 miles.

During the first year of this road show, Ferrellgas said its propane-powered F-250 traveled more than 47,000 miles across 30 states, producing approximately 5,954 lbs less carbon dioxide than its gasoline equivalent while saving some $2,469 in fuel costs. Those are pretty compelling numbers, especially with the legacy of 2008’s oil price spike still fresh in our minds.

Add to that two to three years longer service life and extended intervals between required maintenance and you get an even more interesting vehicle life cycle equation to consider.

This doesn’t make propane a “silver bullet” in terms of taking care of our nation’s transportation energy needs by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly makes it a compelling piece of an ultimate solution.

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