President, CleanFUEL USA
Tell us about CleanFUEL USA.
CleanFUEL is committed to the propane autogas alternative fuel space, where we focus on two primary things. We design propane autogas engine systems and at the NTEA show, we are featuring two of those systems and vehicle platforms. One, the six liter engine that is inside the GM G4500 van and debuting this week, and an eight liter engine in the Freightliner Custom Chassis medium duty truck. Both engines offer tremendous potential and we are eager to show them off.
Beyond engine systems, we build what is perhaps the world’s best autogas dispenser; we also have several other dispensers featured in different booths around the show which are specifically used to dispense autogas. A key benefit of autogas is the low cost and ease of installing the infrastructure; our equipment offers the user the same functionality they’ve grown accustomed to with gasoline or diesel.
Other services we offer in the autogas arena are a very robust safety department, training, warranty and service group, all of which help our customers as they work through familiarizing themselves with propane autogas.
Lastly, we are able to help our customers find a fuel provider and secure an economically appealing price as they source autogas.
What would be the ideal fleet for propane, and what kinds of savings can a fleet expect?
The ideal fleet would be a fleet that is driving each of their vehicles twenty five to thirty thousand miles a year and keeping those vehicles eight to twelve years. Aspects of the fleet owner and/or manager which make them an ideal candidate include a desire to utilize a domestic fuel, limit emissions and save 50% to 60% in fuel costs..
Historically we have found that the price of propane autogas is about $1.00 to $1.25 a gallon cheaper than the posting price of gasoline. Over the last year we have discovered more and more natural gas in the US; alongside that natural gas is more and more propane, decreasing the price quite a bit. Today we are enjoying a differential to gasoline of well in excess of $2.00 a gallon, therefore fuel cost has become significant.
The first fleets that come to mind are a couple of municipalities that we work with who have school bus fleets running on propane autogas and are beginning to migrate some of their other service vehicles. Most of them have savings of — that they publish — in excess of three digits, over $100,000.00 a year.
Why would a fleet not want to use propane? What are the barriers?
When you consider the attributes, most importantly the cost savings, it is difficult to understand why fleets don’t just automatically choose propane autogas. What fleet is not interested in saving money? Realistically, there are very few barriers, but the most binding barrier is the need to return to a central refueling location. It is not an absolute barrier because we can provide infrastructure and critical points along their route, but if you have a highly decentralized fleet that has no hub for maintenance and/or fueling, it tends to be a barrier.
The other barrier is a fleet with a wide disparity in the vehicles they use; a fleet which uses differing makes and models of vehicles and not very many of any one type. A perfect fleet for propane autogas utilizes vehicles that they can purchase today from the OEM. Our key product here is a General Motors G4500 van; if you use that product in your fleet and you have four or five garaged in one location, we are prepared to handle you and GM is prepared to service you.
Those are, frankly, the only two barriers that I think should prevent anyone from adopting our technology.
Some years ago there was a concern about propane with respect to maintenance issues with the vehicle. Is that still an issue?
Certainly the systems of the 50s and 60s were fundamentally different systems than we have today. The systems we are promoting at NTEA are all liquid injected and very robust. Our General Motors system has been through every check and certification process that General Motors conducts on any other vehicle they produce. We put a tremendous amount of time and money into each and every aspect of the system, such as brackets and corrosion protection. We went the extra mile in every element of the design to ensure longevity and help eliminate warranty expenses. This process is not typically considered in today’s after market systems.
Today’s systems are maintained with typical mechanics tools and the fault codes read out just as if the mechanic is working on a gasoline vehicle. Any mechanic who is trained to work on a gasoline or diesel engine is usually quite capable of working on our technology as well. We find a mechanic’s apprehensiveness to be less and less of a barrier and one of our latest initiatives is developing a national certification for an alt-fuel training program.
Do you envision a time when propane is going to be as ubiquitous as diesel or gasoline?
I would like to envision a time when propane is as ubiquitous as gasoline and diesel, but the practical person in me says that probably wont ever happen because we are a nation that has and likely always will, use gasoline as our primary fuel. That said, I sense a time when it will be quite common for fleets who purchase OEM produced vehicles to have a 100% propane autogas powered fleet.
We are beginning to see some school bus fleets who, at one time, only had one, two, or three percent of their fleet powered by alternative fuel, now making a conscious decision to move their fleet to 100% propane autogas.
In my experience, over the last thirty years, I have watched quite a few fleets make the transition to operate fully on propane autogas. Once fleets understand the benefits and cost features they realize that making the switch gives them a tremendous competitive advantage.
How about CNG? Do you view it as competitive?
We certainly take pride in the fact that propane autogas is the most widely used alternative fuel in the world. Gasoline and diesel are clearly number one and two, but beyond that we have 17 million vehicles running on autogas in the world. Natural gas shares a lot of benefits with propane. It is a domestic fuel, it is plentiful and seems to be becoming more plentiful, and it has clean burning emissions characteristics. That said, those characteristics are shared exactly by propane. We come from natural gas, we are plentiful, we are domestic, we seem to have a growing supply and our emissions are also quite clean.
I am particularly mindful that the natural gas group is a very strong and powerful lobby, which gives them traction at the state and federal level. They also have a significant advantage on us in the heavy duty market right now. Our biggest engine to date is this eight liter engine with Freightliner and we don’t have extensive product plans right now for engines larger than that eight liter.
Our vehicle tanks are steel, so they are far less expensive to make and they are also significantly lighter, which boasts well with customers who are concerned about payload and range. While we use a steel tank, considerably lighter than a CNG tank, our fuel is also significantly lighter than gasoline. So, overall our payloads are rarely affected and that matters to a fleet driving medium duty trucks who are concerned about their cargo weights.
The other issue is infrastructure cost. We try to think of ourselves as a partner to CNG because there are many situations where CNG works. If you have a large, heavy duty fleet and you have a partner who is willing to pay the significant cost of the CNG fueling station, then it is a great product for you. Our infrastructure is most always given as a part of a fuel contract to a fleet. We see a significant advantage in our systems because of our infrastructure costs and because of our low pressure tanks; it becomes a cheaper alternative fuel choice, all the way around.
Thomas E. Perkins, Jr. (“Tucker”) currently serves as President for CleanFUEL USA, a leading supplier of propane autogas engine systems and infrastructure equipment. CleanFUEL USA is a privately-held company which prides itself on quality employees who are dedicated to exceptional product and the advancement of alternative fuels across the world.