At the Kirkland headquarters of Carburetor Connection, Alexander Racz makes fast cars go faster. Racz (sounds like “race”) founded Carburetor Connection in 1987 to install superchargers, high-performance exhaust systems and suspensions that most of us only dream about. But in 2010, Racz’s phone started ringing for an entirely different reason: With the price of gasoline and diesel at unprecedented levels, fleet operators throughout the Northwest were interested in converting their vans and light vehicles to run on liquid propane gas (LPG), which is a byproduct of refining gasoline.
At the Kent headquarters of World CNG, a similar trend had taken root. The four-year-old alternative fuel systems firm is growing rapidly as it converts vehicle fleets—taxis, police cruisers, buses—to run on compressed natural gas (CNG), which is not liquefied and is used in traditional internal combustion engine vehicles that have been converted into dual-fuel vehicles.
Ship operators, too, see a future in natural gas. Tacoma-based Tote Inc. recently announced it will spend $350 million on a project that includes building two large container ships powered primarily by liquefied natural gas (LNG), and Washington State Ferries has plans to convert up to a fourth of its fleet to run on LNG as well.
What drives the shift to propane and natural gas is their advantage as cheaper, cleaner-burning fuels. They cost up to 50 percent less than gasoline and diesel fuel, produce 20 percent fewer carbon dioxide emissions and their use results in lower maintenance costs because they burn more cleanly. If that’s not enough, since most propane and natural gas used in the United States is produced domestically, it has the benefit of reducing American dependence on foreign oil.
One challenge is the lack of places to fuel up. Armin Ausejo, marketing director at World CNG, notes that in the state of Washington there are 400 taxis running on CNG, but only six fueling stations. And it’s hard to get new investments in fueling stations when relatively few cars are designed to run on natural gas. Although Bellevue-based Paccar Inc. now offers many truck models powered by natural gas, sales of those models still represent a small percentage of all trucks sold.
That means any real progress toward the use of propane or natural gas requires converting existing internal combustion motors to run on gas. That’s where companies such as Carburetor Connection and World CNG come into play.
When Racz first began receiving calls about propane three years ago, it wasn’t his first brush with the fuel. Racz had seen propane conversion systems two decades earlier.
“We actually spent more time removing them and putting cars back to original carburetion,” Racz says of the propane conversions he encountered in the 1980s. The first generation of propane conversions was inspired by the gasoline shortages of the 1970s, but the lack of fueling stations made it unattractive. When gasoline prices fell dramatically, conversion made little economic sense.
Today, however, new technology makes it relatively easy to convert a vehicle to operate a dual-fuel system, allowing it to use its gasoline or diesel fuel when there isn’t an appropriate natural gas fuel station nearby. The relatively low cost of building fueling stations also has created a more robust infrastructure for gas-powered vehicles.
Racz recognized that a renewed migration to propane, which is marketed worldwide as autogas, had begun, and Carburetor Connection became a certified conversion center in early 2011. Racz and his crew have since converted some of the Northwest’s largest vehicle fleets to dual-fuel propane systems, including shuttles for MasterPark, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Northwest Transport and all 16 of the Edmonds Police Department’s Ford Crown Victoria cruisers.
Autogas, which is chemically identical to the propane that fires your outdoor gas grill, is doing a booming business overseas: It powers nearly 18 million vehicles worldwide. In South Korea alone, 2.5 million cars run on propane. By contrast, there are only 250,000 propane-fueled vehicles in the United States—less than one percent of all registered highway vehicles.
“It might as well be a state secret,” says Darren Engle, director of marketing for Oregon-based Blue Star Gas, one of the West Coast’s largest suppliers of propane infrastructure and technology. Engle, who is chairman of research and technology development for the Propane Education and Research Council, is quick to point out that the propane industry’s structure is fundamentally different from that of any other major fuel type. Unlike the oil and natural gas sectors, which are controlled by a handful of large corporations, the American propane market is served by some 3,500 independent retailers. Most of them are small firms with little to spend on marketing plans, much less on lobbyists in Washington, D.C.
But thanks to Alliance Autogas, a newly formed consortium of more than 50 retailers, conversion centers and equipment providers, liquid propane has recently found its voice. Linking fleet managers with partners like Blue Star Gas and Carburetor Connection, Alliance Autogas provides all of the tools and support a manager needs to research and carry out a conversion.
CNG and LNG are also gaining ground. North American natural gas is abundant, clean burning, inexpensive to transport and even cheaper than propane. Championed by T. Boone Pickens, the outspoken oil magnate, natural gas has become the alternative fuel du jour in Washington, D.C. There have been large-scale fleet conversions to CNG across the country as cities converted buses, law enforcement agencies converted police cruisers, and corporations pledge to convert thousands of fleet vehicles. AT&T has promised to deploy 15,000 CNG vehicles nationwide by 2018.
LNG, meanwhile, has become the alternative fuel of choice in heavy-use applications, including trucking and maritime use. Washington State Ferries is researching the viability of converting its six Issaquah Class ferries to LNG because it is considerably more energy dense than CNG and is therefore better suited to large-load scenarios.
Projections for the growth of gas for use in ships and motor vehicles in the United States range from wildly optimistic to cautious and measured. Regardless, it’s clear that as long as propane and natural gas prices remain low and gasoline prices remain high, more and more motors will be converted to run on gas.
“Everybody’s watching the price [of gasoline],” Racz says. “The higher it goes, the more the phone rings.”
At Seattle Children’s, the hospital’s conversion to propane is beginning to pay for itself. Fifteen shuttle buses travel more than 500,000 road miles each year, operating 16 hours a day, five days a week. According to Kyle Brown, manager of parking and shuttle operations, the recently converted shuttles saved $19,000 in fuel costs in 2012. Those savings are expected to jump dramatically this year, when additional propane tanks will be fitted to the shuttles, nearly doubling their propane capacity and further limiting the fleet’s reliance on gasoline.
Brown is excited about the savings, but he’s even happier about how smooth the conversion has been for his shuttle drivers, describing the process as seamless. And since propane burns more cleanly than diesel and gasoline, Seattle Children’s shuttles will receive routine oil changes every 5,000 miles instead of every 3,000.
“[Propane] makes sense economically,” says Sandy Stutey, the hospital’s transportation program manager, “and also for the hospital’s sustainability goals to reduce carbon emissions. Until they figure out how to make shuttle buses run on air, I think we’re really pleased with this option.” — N.H.