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Virginia Clean Cities wants us to drive on cheaper, domestic propane

December 1, 2011 - 04:22 PM
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The future of fuel? Maybe. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“You have a lot of choices when it comes to the fuel for your fleet. At Virginia Clean Cities, we don’t feel there is one solution," Virginia Clean Cities projects director Peter Denbigh told a small crowd at the GOVgreen conference this afternoon. "At a high level, they’re all wanting to displace petroleum, they’re all wanting to work on their energy independence. There may be a lot of right answers.”

The dark-haired and young-looking man spoke with crispness about one solution that the Virginia Clean Cities non-profit has been trying with various public and private fleets — propane, Denbigh declared, also known as autogas. He and one other person run the Virginia Clean Cities autogas initiative along with many partners. The $20 million project hopes to transform 1,200 vehicles, 36 fleets (each with at least 10 vehicles), and 40+ stations across 15 states from 2010 to 2015. A little under half its funding comes from the U.S. Department of Energy. The bigger goal: eliminate 4,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually as well as reduce the annual consumption of gas by four million gallons. Not too shabby a start. Most importantly, Virginia Clean Cities hopes to act as a catalyst for our transportation system — what's relevant for fleets and specialized vehicles now could be part of the transportation solutions of tomorrow. Autogas is currently the third most popular transport fuel in the world but still accounts for under 3% of the total in our petroleum-dominated systems. Commuters, especially those who rely on personal automobiles, should begin to study up on these alternative fuels, including autogas. The commercial sector certainly hasn't been ignoring them, as GOVgreen has attempted to show. Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, points to the inconsistent history of energy policy in the U.S. "We can’t put up with fits and starts," Wynne told today's conference attendees. "We need consistent policy."

Why propane? As Denbigh joked to the conference audience, its uses go beyond helping us grill hamburgers.

Propane fuels cars in a similar way to gasoline now but costs about a dollar less. To convert a vehicle to accept propane costs about $5,800, and there tends to be similar mileage and operating experience but far lower emissions.Unlike traditional gas, propane is a 90% domestic fuel, according to Denbigh, and unlike some alternative fuels, there's less of a need to change driver behavior, which he emphasizes is one of the most difficult challenges in establishing alternative fuels. No driver likes to feel "stranded" in a new system which makes education, training, and resources essential to changing any transportation system.

How to make drivers change what seems like a whole way of life? To shift away from the comfort and reliabilty of the system they know? The tasks are not easy.

View LPG-Autogas in a larger map

“What’s cool is we have both public and private fleets," Denbigh explained. He talked about how the program helps convert police cars, limos, and more. "We have taxis that travel 300 or 400 miles a day. By getting these high-mileage fleets, it really accelerates the impact of this program.”

So far, Virginia Clean Cities has converted 314 vehicles out of the 1,200 it plans to. The organization is converting about 25 to 40 vehicles a week. Denbigh touts the fact that it's already saved 130 tons of greenhouse gas, avoided the consumption of 100,000 gallons of gas, and created green jobs (he cites 2,500 hours of work created in October). Above is a map of propane filling stations in the state of Virginia. In April, Fleet Equipment reported more than 2,600 such autogas fueling stations around the U.S. He points to early signs of satisfaction, such as with the police department of Carroll County, Georgia. The police have converted several Crown Vics and have been very satisfied with the changes, Denbigh emphasizes, and several improvements autogas offers, such as doubling the time in which a vehicle needs an oil change.

“Officers love that increased performance," Denbigh explained. "There’s reduced emissions, of course, which makes us happy ... If you can find people who want this, it’s a huge, huge asset to your efforts."

But as Denbigh points out, there are many solutions, and propane alone is not the only way transportation can change. Virginia Clean Cities works not only with propane but also biodiesel, electric, ethanol, hydrogen, and electric fuel alternatives. The U.S. Department of Defense is in the midst of converting as many of its 200,000 vehicles as possible to electric plug-in models. DOD's Camron Gorguinpour warned that these changes also have to be implemented carefully. To shift from current vehicles to ones that, while more sustainable, perform worse comes with certain risks. What would happen if people suddenly get electric vehicles that don't work so well?

"We’re going to have a very bad stigma with electric vehicles at DOD for a very long time," Gorguinpour told his audience today, if vehicle performance is not comparable.

These concerns remain just as valid when talking about police departments, taxi companies, and the public at large as our transportation evolves now and in the years to come. Valuable lessons are emerging from these first commercial efforts. Commuters of today, take note. What changes in these small ways now will begin, hopefully and likely, changing in big ways soon for even more people. When talking to the GOVgreen crowd, Denbigh began his speech by talking directly about the influence of the people in the room and advising how they could help kickstart this broader change. It reminded me of D.C. Office of Planning's Harriet Tregoning's call to action for officials at Rail~Volution.

"I want to talk about you — as a fleet influencer, as a government influencer, or a government official, you have a unique opportunity to leverage your position to have a lot of impact with alternative fuels," the man remarked. He told them that their efforts could easily affect “a thousand tailpipes or more … I want you to take that responsibility very seriously."

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