Propane gaining ground as alternative vehicle fuel

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Around here, 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 of their lives 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,” said Chandler, 51, a Charleston-based entrepreneur and investor who wants to bring liquid propane technology to West Virginia.

“Ten years ago, there were 700 liquid propane fueling stations in Germany,” said Chandler, who has been to Germany personally to see it. “Now there are 5,000.”

Chandler is managing director of Propane Fuel Technologies LLC, a Charleston-based investment group working to promote a German engine kit that injects propane into diesel engines to lower fuel consumption. But 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 said 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 out west.

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.

Propane-powered vehicles need somewhere to fill up with propane, and in West Virginia there are few places.

Chandler hopes to change that. He said 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, including Charleston. Chandler has gotten state approval to build a station at the One Stop at the corner of Florida Street and Kanawha Boulevard West.

“We had hoped it would already be operating,” said Chandler, who thinks the station will be up and running by the end of February.

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. The cost of conversion has been one of the stumbling blocks for governments and businesses to switch to alternate-fuel vehicles.

Chandler hopes to build about 10 propane fuel stations around the state. He was to present his plans to members of the Kanawha County Commission at a recent meeting.

Although the county has already bought one SUV that runs on compressed natural gas, and the Kanawha Valley Regional Transportation Authority has agreed to buy eight natural gas-powered buses, Chandler believes there is room in the county’s fleet for propane vehicles. Chandler said natural gas is a good choice for large vehicles like city buses, but smaller cars and trucks may be better served by converting to propane.

Liquid propane — the same stuff in the tank below your gas grill — is a natural byproduct of oil and natural gas drilling. Chandler said propane can theoretically be harvested right here in West Virginia, then liquefied to serve as a fuel. He said liquid propane is already a common fuel in other parts of the world, and is commonly called autogas outside of the United States.

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

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

A propane station also takes up about a tenth of the space of a natural gas station, he said. 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 believes.

He said liquid propane is 7 percent to 10 percent less efficient than gasoline, meaning a car that gets 30 miles per gallon with gas might only get 27 or 28 mpg with propane. But Chandler said 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, Chandler said.

“In Dallas, they’re paying $1.50 a gallon,” he said.