Propane powers Irving auto expo

A. Lee Graham

Tucker Perkins and Scott Weber have driven the alternative-energy future and have no plans on shifting gears. While representing different parts of the vehicle fuels spectrum – Perkins promoting propane and Weber, electricity – the men reflect growing numbers of consumers purchasing, or at least considering purchasing, vehicles powered by petroleum-free fuels. “Anybody we talk with constantly talks about the performance and how much more they like it,” said Perkins, speaking at the Fifth Annual Texas AltCar Expo at the Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas.

As chief business development officer for the Propane Education & Research Council, which promotes propane as a preferred energy resource, Perkins touts the fuel for more than home heating and King of the Hill TV plot material. Instead, he points to the 147,000 propane-powered vehicles traversing U.S. roadways, according to the U.S. Energy Department’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, with sales expected to add 18,500 to that number this year and 25,000 more in 2015. But Weber places his bets on electricity; namely, the current powering the Tesla 2.5 Roadster he bought two years ago. “I bought it because it’s cool,” said Weber, an Arlington software developer invited to the expo to learn about vehicles powered by propane, hydrogen, biodiesel, natural gas, ethanol and hybrid fuels.

Comparing his gasoline-powered Toyota and Tesla is no contest, Weber said. “I looked at that and said that’s the closest thing to the Speed Racer Mach 5 that I’ve ever seen,” Weber said of his Tesla. Marek Koenig shares that enthusiasm. The fellow Tesla owner bought his vehicle last May and is a believer. “Once you drive a Tesla, you’ll understand how smooth the ride is, how quiet the ride is. Going back to a conventional car, it would be like stepping back in time,” Koenig said in a decidedly non-nostalgic sense. But nostalgia had no place at the event, which allowed the public to test drive several models, including a Nissan LEAF electric car, Chevrolet’s Volt plug-in hybrid and the Chevrolet Crew Cab eREV Silverado pickup truck. Funding the event was a U.S. Department of Energy grant. The March 27-29 gathering was sponsored by Roush CleanTech; Clean Fuel USA; and the Propane Energy & Research Council.

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Kicking things off was a panel discussion focused on propane, industry competition and impacts not only on consumers, but also the environment. “The city of Fort Worth has been a great supporter of propane over the last several years,” said Pamela Burns, communications supervisor with the North Central Texas Council of Governments and coordinator for Dallas-Fort Worth Clean Cities, one of about 100 public-private coalitions nationwide whose stated mission is advancing the nation’s economic, environmental and energy security goals . In praising propane, Burns referred to the city of Fort Worth’s propane vehicle fleet, as well as those in the city of Denton. “Texas has had very successful propane fleets in the past several years,” said Burns, adding that Texas, at 450 stations, leads the nation in numbers of public propane fueling stations, not including private-access fueling stations used by commercial fleets. While 75 percent of the 14,000 propane-powered vehicles sold so far this year are smaller, light-duty vehicles, the balance, or medium-duty vehicles, comprise mainly school buses.

“Where we begin to differ (from light duty-heavy sales) is now, for the first time, we have a series of projected offerings in the medium-duty space,” said Perkins, pointing to UPS’s decision to order 1,000 propane trucks. “A fleet like UPS that is analytical to a fault … when they make a move as bold as 1,000 vehicles – the largest order they’ve ever made – that should tell you something,” Perkins said. With FedEx and other transportation services also snapping up propane-powered chassis, Burns feels emboldened. “This begins a new industry we can attack.” Landscaping and agriculture industries also are warming to propane, with propane-powered lawnmower and irrigation engine sales rising.

“Farmers need to become more competitive and have more yield in crops. Do they use electricity, diesel or propane? Those are their choices,” Perkins said. While lauding what he considers a promising industry, Perkins also addressed public criticism of propane shortages during this year’s unusually cold winter. “The fact remains that, on balance, we create much more propane than we consume,” Perkins said. “We have never had a supplies problem, and I don’t think we will for years and years.”