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May 14, 2013

News & Features

Propane gaining ground as alternative vehicle fuel

The Charleston Gazette

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Brett Chandler shows off photos and equipment related to using liquid propane as an alternative fuel. (Chip Ellis / The Charleston Gazette)

Most people stare blankly when Bret Chandler starts talking about using propane as an alternate vehicle fuel. But most people haven't spent the past three years working with companies that convert cars and trucks to run on propane and setting up networks of filling stations all over California, Texas and Colorado.

"Liquid propane is the third-most-used auto fuel in the world," says Chandler, 51, an entrepreneur and investor who wants to bring liquid-propane technology to the United States.

"Ten years ago, there were 700 liquid-propane fueling stations in Germany," says Chandler, who has been to Germany to see it. "Now there are 5,000."

Greener fuel
  • Compared with gasoline and diesel fuel, propane autogas produces fewer harmful greenhouse-gas emissions. Liquid propane has:
  • 70 percent less smog-producing hydrocarbons
  • 50 percent less carbon monoxide
  • 20 percent less nitrogen oxide
  • 12 percent less carbon dioxide
  • — CleanFUEL USA

Chandler is managing director of Propane Fuel Technologies LLC, an investment group based in Charleston, W. Va., working to promote a German engine kit that injects propane into diesel engines to lower fuel consumption. For the past three years, he has been working closely with CleanFUEL USA, a company in Texas that converts cars and trucks to run on propane and sets up propane filling stations.

Chandler says CleanFUEL has converted hundreds of vehicles to run on propane, including entire fleets of school buses and other vehicles. The company has also set up a system of propane filling stations.

While traveling between West Virginia and Texas to work on the CleanFUEL projects, Chandler decided there was nothing to keep him from bringing propane technology to West Virginia except for infrastructure.

Chandler hopes to change that. He says CleanFUEL was able to get a $12 million federal Department of Energy grant to build 168 propane-fueling stations in 16 cities around the country.

He said the DOE grant also includes $500,000 to convert cars and trucks to run on propane, or enough to convert about 50 vehicles.

Liquid propane — the same stuff in the tank below your gas grill — is a natural byproduct of oil and natural-gas drilling. Chandler says liquid propane is already a common fuel in other parts of the world, and is commonly called autogas outside the United States.

Chandler says liquid propane has several advantages over compressed natural gas. Although natural gas burns cleaner, support and infrastructure costs are lower with propane, he says.

Chandler says it costs anywhere from $700,000 to $1.5 million to build a natural-gas fueling station. He says a propane filling station can be built for less than $100,000.

A propane station takes up about a tenth of the space of a natural-gas station, he says.

Natural gas also requires complicated and expensive equipment to keep the gas under high pressure, which is not necessary with propane.

The fuel tanks and components to convert a car or truck to propane also are lighter than equipment for a natural-gas conversion, making propane a better choice for smaller vehicles, Chandler says.

He says liquid propane is 7 percent to 10 percent less efficient than gasoline, resulting in fewer miles per gallon. But Chandler says the loss in efficiency is made up by the lower fuel cost for propane.

Propane fuel is still fairly expensive — as much as $4 a gallon — in areas where there are few places to fill up. But where liquid propane is common, prices are competitive with natural gas. "In Dallas, they're paying $1.50 a gallon," he says.

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