Spring brings growth and change for US propane industry

Spring brings growth and change for US propane industry
By Roy Willis, President and CEO, Propane Education and Research Council (PERC), United States

The first quarter sped by as the Propane Education & Research Council instituted changes in the structure of our management and our Council. We have also added recently several executives that are revitalizing our work in the propane-Autogas sector.

 Our changes at headquarters are designed to enhance PERC’s safety and training efforts and, in particular, its research and development programme, which helps manufacturers bring new propane-fuelled products to residential, commercial, agricultural, on-road and off-road markets.

At our Council-level, we now have three advisory committees focused on research and development, training, and markets, respectively. Our communications strategy is focused on consistency in branding and messaging across PERC’s wide reach.

Beefing Up Our Propane-Autogas Team

We’ve recently added two executives to take PERC’s Autogas efforts to the next level – Alan McEwan, programs manager of engine fuel, and Mike Taylor, director of Autogas business development.

Alan is a 25-year veteran of the engine fuel industry in the United States and the United Kingdom and most recently was director of business development for the engineering service division of Mahle Powertrain in Detroit.

Alan brings an invaluable background to PERC. He has cold-tested vehicles in International Falls, Minnesota in February, led the development of the engine for the top of the range Ford of Europe car, sold pistons and liners to Detroit Diesel and was the team leader of a group proposing new engine concepts to power a variety of unmanned drones being used by the US armed forces.

Originally from Scotland, Alan has a degree in mechanical engineering from Strathclyde University in Glasgow. However, the States can now claim Alan as he became a US citizen and lives in Milford, Michigan. Still, he remains a football, or soccer, fan.

Alan is working closely with a number of OEMs as we bring more propane Autogas vehicles to market.

Michael Taylor comes to us from Heritage Propane having worked as its director of fleet management for the last four years. Prior to Heritage Propane, Mike enjoyed a 22-year career in the school transportation industry. He served as general manager and managing partner of Cardinal Bus Sales LLC, a premier Blue Bird distributorship in the state of Indiana. During his 20-year tenure with Blue Bird, he was appointed to numerous management positions, most notably regional manager.

Mike was chairman of PERC’s Engine Fuel Advisory Committee from 2008 to 2011, and most recently served as co-chair of the Research and Technology Development Working Group. 

Mike has leadership experience and important relationships both inside and outside the propane industry needed to take our propane Autogas efforts to a new level of acceptance and success in the marketplace.

A New Truck for a Growing Market

Manufacturers continue to build vehicles for the burgeoning propane-Autogas market.

Most recently, Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. introduced its propane-Autogas-fuelled S2G chassis at the 2012 National Truck Equipment Association Work Truck Show, the major show of its type in the United States. The S2G is built on Freightliner’s S2 chassis, features an 8-litre, 325-hp engine from Powertrain Integration and uses the GM long block and other components. The front-engine S2G features a Freightliner M2 cab, so it has a forward-tilting hood for easy engine access. It weighs in at 33 000 pounds and comes with an Allison 2300 automatic transmission.

Freightliner touts the lower operational costs and reduced emissions that the S2G offers, all without giving up any capability or performance. The S2G is a worker suitable for pickup and delivery, student transportation and municipal applications.

Freightliner’s partners on the S2G include PERC, Powertrain Integration and CleanFuel USA.

At this time, plans call for a limited pre-production run of the S2G chassis in the fourth quarter of this year, and for a full production ramp-up in the first quarter of 2013.

Lower Emissions Become a Strong Draw

We’re seeing some interesting infrastructure developments that show great promise for the development of Autogas. I’ll take a snap shot of the West Coast but positive developments are occurring around the country.

Southern California has particularly tough emissions standards, as much of it is in a valley so emissions from its vehicles rise and stall over the region. In response, the state of California has devoted about $20 million to an incentive programme that offers discounts to buyers of alternative-fuel vehicles.

Many school districts in the area are using this programme as they switch from emissions-heavy diesel-powered buses and purchase buses powered by alternative fuels like propane-Autogas.

This has helped to bring sales to PERC partners Blue Bird Corp. and Collins Bus Corp.

Blue Bird’s Autogas option, the Vision, is a large, type C bus that seats up to 77 students and comes equipped with a Ford 6.8 litre V-10 engine. Collins offers a midsize type A propane-Autogas bus that seats up to 32 and is powered by a dual rear wheel cutaway GM chassis with 6.0 litre engine. 

The school district of Los Angeles has invested in about 300 propane Autogas buses and a number of smaller cities in the area have followed suit. In March, California announced it had added another $1.5 million to the incentive to encourage the purchase of as many as 110 Autogas vehicles.

I was in the San Diego area for a Council meeting and attended the opening of a propane-Autogas fuelling pump at a gas station that serves shuttle buses and other fleets around the Los Angeles/Ontario International Airport. Arro Autogas is installing about 20 of these pumps through Southern California, a sign of the growth of Autogas-fuelled vehicles and the demand for this fuel.

Moving much farther north up the coast takes us to Portland, Oregon. The city’s school district is buying this month from Collins 10 propane Autogas buses and plans to add another 90 to its fleet by the beginning of the next school year.

The Portland story is a great one for Autogas. The city’s schools have been using the fuel in its bus fleet for nearly 30 years, and its buses now transport more than 8 000 students a day and travel more than 3.3 million miles annually.

District officials told us that the buses using Autogas run up to 30 000 miles longer than those fuelled by gasoline and that the district is projecting savings in 2012 of 50 percent for its Autogas purchases when compared with those for gasoline.

Mowers Present a Promising Market

You may have read that much of the United States has had an unusually warm winter and an early spring. That has led many lawn and landscaping professionals to get an early start on their customers’ lawn care this year.

The commercial mower market shows great potential for sales of equipment that uses propane. Propane’s low emissions make it very competitive with mowers powered by gas and diesel, as both have well-earned reputations for spewing unpleasant smoke and odour.

Commercial mowers also use a fair amount of fuel, an estimated 1 000 gallons of propane a year, depending on the region of the country where they operate.

To encourage the lawn-care industry to take a close look at propane, PERC is launching the Commercial Mower Dealer Demonstration Project, an incentive programme worth nearly $800 000. We are working with a number of propane mower and engine manufacturers to place up to 300 propane-fuelled demonstration mowers with up to 300 different dealers nationwide.

The dealer will be able to use the mower for up to one year and then earn up to $2 000 in incentives from PERC to purchase the used mower in exchange for end-user data on the mowers performance, fuel consumption, and user perception.

Our research has shown that customers and dealers need the opportunity to use a propane mower before they feel comfortable selling or buying one. In the past, dealers have been unable to “loan” propane mowers out for customer trial because they have difficulty selling a used mower without incurring a significant financial loss.

The incentive money provided in this programme will help to cover any loss. Participating manufacturers and dealers will also benefit by being featured in PERC’s outreach and communications to support the dealer demonstration programme. PERC will also provide a dealer training kit and mower marketing kit.

Training the Industry on New Products

PERC devotes considerable resources to training, primarily to ensure the safe and efficient use of propane by industry professionals. In the last two years, we have expanded a training programme for propane marketers designed to build their knowledge and enthusiasm for the opportunities presented by new propane products.

This programme supports industry research and development efforts by enhancing marketers’ understanding of equipment that can help offset seasonal propane demand. In the programme’s first two years, PERC partnered with state associations to train more than 1 400 students in 56 sessions in 33 states with its “Capturing New Gallon Opportunities” classes. Classes currently in the programme cover commercial lawn mowers, generators, irrigation engines, and on-road vehicles and fleets.

The first quarter has brought challenges, change and opportunity. The warm winter has meant lower sales for many of our marketers, making it evident that the propane industry must aggressively create new technology that serves new markets. PERC’s research and development efforts, coupled with its training on the safe and efficient use of propane equipment, are leading to greater uses for propane.

For more information on Autogas in the United States, please contact Roy by email: roy.willis@propanecouncil.org.