The other alternative fuel — propane — making inroads in Oregon
By Lee van der Voo
Sustainable Business Oregon contributing writer
Propane for vehicle fleet is cropping up as a viable option for companies looking to cut down on emissions and costs.
A two-year-old partnership between a family-owned propane supplier and a national company promoting propane autogas is making inroads for the gasoline alternative. And at least one fleet manager who’s made the switch is singing propane’s praises.
Propane is already an established vehicle fuel in other parts of the world. Dubbed propane autogas or simply autogas, it fuels 17.5 million cars worldwide, though only 180,000 of those are in the United States.
Proponents say cleaner-burning propane failed catch on here in a bygone era of cheap oil, but it’s finding its footing lately, since Alliance AutoGas stepped up to fill a gap in technology.
Importing propane systems and components from the Dutch company Prins Autogassystem BV, Alliance has partnered with American propane suppliers to promote propane as a fuel source. On the West Coast, Blue Star Gas, the 75-year-old company based in Santa Rosa, Calif., has taken up the charge of urging propane uptake in Oregon.
With four of the company’s 13 offices here, Blue Star has been talking aggressively with vehicle regional fleet managers about conversion. They say while propane might not be a sensible choice for consumers with a single passenger vehicle — it requires an investment in fueling infrastructure — it’s a great fit for vehicle fleets.
In Oregon, the Portland-based Franz Family Bakeries has fueled 40 of its 1,400-vehicle delivery fleet with propane for 30 years. Tommy Moreno, Franz’s fleet manager, said it’s been difficult to find the technology to convert newer vehicles to propane, though the company already ha a dependable propane-fueling infrastructure at locations throughout Oregon.
The bakery recently linked up with Blue Star Gas to lay hands on the newer conversion technology. The partnership began with a single test vehicle. Now, Moreno is planning to convert 30 to 40 more vehicles to propane.
“We had one vehicle that we’re watching right now it looks like it will save us about $1,700 a year," he said. With the cost of the conversion at roughly $6,000, Moreno expects a 3.5-year return on investment.
“We’re very impressed with the conversion kit they provided us with. The installation went very well. And propane right now is about $1 cheaper per gallon,” he said.
Moreno expects that lower pricing to hold as the cost of oil trends upward long-term. And while he said the vehicles lose a small amount of horsepower and miles-per-gallon efficiency in the conversion, propane has additional benefits: It burns cleaner, prolongs the life of engines, and helps Franz’s vehicles sail smoothly through Oregon Department of Environmental Quality regulations.
Because Blue Star Gas also provided training and certified the company’s mechanics, Moreno said there are no additional service costs and the vehicles maintain their ability to run on gas.
Propane also has a marketing advantage.
“Customers today require you to show them what you're doing to help the environment. Propane is one of the things that we like to show,” said Moreno.
He estimates Franz Family Bakeries has meanwhile saved thousands on fuel costs over 30 years. And though he didn’t have a firm number on total savings over time, he believes those savings are substantial enough to reinvest the fleet in propane for years to come.
Distributors at Blue Star Gas are counting on other fleet managers seeing such benefits. President and CEO Jeff Stewart said Blue Star representatives have met with more than 60 organizations in the Portland Metro region and more than 100 in Seattle — including police departments, municipalities, limousine services, transportation services for the disabled, delivery fleets and others. The Washington Department of Transportation recently signed on for a pilot, testing propane conversion on approximately 25 of its roadside assistance vehicles in the Vancouver area.
“Any vehicle that is traveling 30,000 miles a year can experience a payback,” Stewart said. “Certainly the interest — based on the three primary benefits — is there. Obviously the cost savings, the greenhouse gas reduction being number two, and number three is the fact that it’s a North American fuel and we don’t have to rely on foreign oil. So those things certainly get people's attention."
Propane is a great option for larger vehicles traveling long distances, according to John Ross Bush, a Washington-based consultant for Blue Star Gas. The cost of conversion, $5,000 to $6,000 per vehicle, can be repaid in less than two years through fuel savings on vehicles driven 30,000 miles annually or more. Qualifying fleets that contract through Blue Star Gas and Alliance Autogas bear no cost for fueling infrastructure.
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