Fueling stations open to support vehicles

Jerry Jansen travels about 18,000 miles a year performing his job as a construction inspector with the Infrastructure Department of Williamson County. In September, the county converted his 2009 Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck to run on both propane and gasoline.

Jansen said initially he was skeptical about using the bi-fuel vehicle, but soon found its performance was comparable to using just gasoline.

"Performance-wise, I don't see any difference in them," he said. "In fact, I get a little more power from the propane."

Jansen is not the only one experiencing the benefits of propane vehicles. The county now has 31 vehicles that run on propane and estimates it will save $61,000 on fuel costs yearly.

Since November 2011, the county has opened a network of six fueling stations to support its propane vehicles. The stations addressed concerns that the vehicles that run solely on propane—the county has eight vehicles so far—would have trouble finding a place to refuel. The stations are located in Cedar Park, Georgetown, Florence, Round Rock, Taylor and Granger.

Although the savings the county is experiencing right now is a small part of the overall $126.88 million general fund budget, commissioners had to cut $2.6 million from the proposed budget to reach that mark in 2011, and Commissioner Ron Morrison said any savings is beneficial to the county.

"There's an old saying, 'You watch nickels and dimes, and dollars take care of themselves,'" he said. "We have to watch every penny, because the tax base has been pretty much flat the last three or four years or so.'"

Other benefits that made exploring propane attractive were its impact on the environment and reducing dependence on gasoline and foreign oil, Morrison said.

A Texas fuel

Propane, or liquefied petroleum gas, is produced as a by-product of natural gas processing and crude oil refining. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, it is the world's third most common engine fuel—trailing gasoline and diesel—and has been used to power vehicles in the United States since the 1920s.

Almost 97 percent of propane consumed in the United States is produced in North America, according to the Propane Education and Resource Council, and all propane used by Williamson County for its vehicles comes from Texas, said former Fleet Manager Michael Fox, who retired in January.

Propane's availability in the Central Texas region makes it a popular choice for municipalities, school districts and universities seeking an alternative fuel for their fleets, said Stacy Neef, program manager of Clean Cities Central Texas coalition.

Sponsored by the DOE, Clean Cities promotes the use of alternative fuels and vehicles.

Fox said the county began discussing adding propane vehicles to its fleet in 2009. Williamson County received two grants—one from the DOE for $611,600 and one from the Railroad Commission of Texas for $208,420—that paid for converting vehicles to run on propane and for the fueling stations, which cost about $60,000 each.

Additional funding

Now that the county has the propane stations, it is eligible to receive the Alternative Fuel Excise Tax Credit, a 50 cent per gallon tax credit for alternative fuels, including propane. Although the credit expired Dec. 31, the Propane Green Autogas Solutions (GAS) Act of 2011 is a bill that proposes to extend the 50 cent credit for five years.

Nine departments in Williamson County requested to use propane vehicles. Most of the vehicles are bi-fuel, or can run on either propane or gasoline, but are set to run on propane. The county also purchased some Ford F-250 and F-350 pickup trucks with ROUSH CleanTech systems that are fueled exclusively with propane.

Propane analysis

During one 12-month period, the county paid on average $1.82 per gallon for propane, compared with an average of $3.15 per gallon for gasoline.

Fox also said the county expects to save money on oil changes and possibly on engine maintenance costs, too.

"According to the people we've talked to, the engines have a longer life on propane," Fox said.

Because the county received grants to kick off its propane vehicle program, the savings are immediate. Without the grant money, the county would have spent, on average, $8,250 more on each vehicle than on purchasing a regular gasoline-powered automobile.

Fox said that without the money, the county would have started to see a return on its investment after about six years on a vehicle that has a typical lifespan of 10 years.

Clean air

In addition to financial benefits, the propane vehicles are helping the county meet the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Act standards, Morrison said.

"One of the major side benefits is [we are] making a small contribution to cleaner air," he said.

Propane is one of the cleanest-burning fossil fuels, emitting less carbon dioxide and harmful emissions than gasoline or diesel, according to the DOE.

Morrison said during the coming years, the county will monitor fuel prices and maintenance costs of the propane vehicles. As county departments request more propane vehicles, the county could purchase more, depending on available funding and conversion costs.

"It's going to be a wait-and-see, but we'll gradually add more propane," he said. "And hopefully, there will be more grant money to come through that would help us offset [the conversion costs]."