Propane has gained momentum as an alternative fuel for vehicles primarily due to its usually appealing price point compared with petroleum-based products, as well as its environmental friendliness. Popular among fleet owners, propane also generates considerable interest among consumers. Unfortunately, further development of propane vehicles and their infrastructure is necessary for the average citizen to see propane vehicles as viable options.
Propane is not alone. Infrastructure development and availability is a driving force behind the acceptance of any renewable fuel, whether propane, compressed natural gas, or algae fuels, to name a few. While fleets have made the greatest use of propane as a vehicle fuel, fleet owners also must rely on their ability to locate propane within a reasonable distance as well as at a price competitive with or better than gasoline. Those states that have a great deal of propane resources are able to make the economic argument more easily for stepping up propane infrastructure in order to better service their local fleets.
So where to start? Simply put, it's very possible for existing fuel providers and fleets to install propane dispensers right alongside pumps for gasoline, diesel, ethanol or other alternative fuels. A plus for propane: the necessary infrastructure is not unlike that needed for gasoline or diesel vehicle refueling, so there is no need to invent the entire wheel. Much like gasoline and diesel, propane can be brought to the fueling site via a propane transport truck and then put into onsite propane storage, which is traditionally above ground unlike gasoline and diesel. Even the fueling dispenser is quite similar to the gasoline dispensers you are already used to. The primary difference between the two is that propane must be delivered to the vehicle under pressure so that it remains a liquid and does not convert into a gaseous form. And just like when dispensing gasoline, once the vehicle tank is full, the dispenser will shut off automatically.
Unlike some alternative fuels that are still in need of development for full-scale production, propane has already been widely used as a heating fuel and so production of propane, its storage, and even bulk distribution capabilities are already in place across most of the country. What does this mean in practical terms? Fueling infrastructure development for vehicle refueling using propane only needs the build-out of dispensing equipment—the storage tank, pump, dispenser, and of course, a card reader, at a station.
But while much of the development for transporting and dispensing propane fuel is in place or nearly in place, there are still several considerations before propane can reach its full potential. Several safety guidelines also need to be considered for infrastructure development. Among them are the National Fire Prevention Association's 58 Vehicular Liquefied Petroleum Gas Code. The code covers the design and installation regulations of propane refueling facilities. Fuel station and fleet owners should contact their local fire marshal to learn more. Propane suppliers should be able to assist fuel station and fleet owners in figuring out how much propane should be stored at any given time in order to meet the needs of customers without running out too frequently or having fuel left in the tank for an extended period of time.
Cost of Development
So what does the price tag look like? If a new propane station is being constructed, the portion of the cost that goes toward purchasing and installing the equipment necessary for dispensing propane typically runs from about $37,000 to $175,000 according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Energy. However, the cost varies, depending on any given situation and local needs. A lot of the costs can be eliminated or greatly reduced by the fuel supplier. For example, suppliers often offer an inexpensive lease of the tank, pump, and dispensing equipment when a multi-year fuel supply contract is signed. In such cases, the station owner or fleet then only has to worry about the cost of infrastructure that cannot be removed from the site once the fuel contract is over. What does this mean? Think of things like the electricity line or the concrete pad for the storage tank. When reduced the installing features such as these, the upfront cost of propane infrastructure can become very affordable.
Many fueling stations already sell propane in small volumes for customers to fill grill containers. For these station owners, all it takes is the upgrade of dispensing equipment to allow for a retail-style metering dispenser and card reader that allows vehicle refueling. The pump itself may need an upgrade to allow for fast, efficient fueling with propane.