Is it possible that the next Big Thing in alternative fuels is being dreamed up, developed, managed and promoted in sleepy little Swannanoa, NC? Stuart Weidie thinks so.
Weidie is the President of Blossman Gas and Appliance Company, Inc., and his Alliance AutoGas product is an alternative fuel whose time may have come. If you understand the product and the market, you have to conclude he certainly could be right. Propane, marketed as AutoGas, just makes good sense.
When we first interviewed Weidie three years ago we captured something of his passion and belief in the propane (AutoGas) solution. He said it made too much common sense not to catch on.
This year, Weidie said propane usage in vehicles had surpassed the 18 million mark worldwide. It has been in vehicular use for more than 60 years and has a widespread and well-understood distribution infrastructure.
Weidie’s company, Blossman Gas, is the nation’s largest family-owned propane distributor. The company operates in 11 states ranging from the Gulf Coast to Delaware. At the time of our earlier interview, AutoGas (propane for vehicles) was in its infancy. Today it could be thought of as a toddler that is beginning to explore the world. Weidie’s Alliance AutoGas has become a unifying force that is bringing together propane distributors nationwide in a single, complete and marketable package that makes propane a practical vehicular alternative.
Weidie maintains a small, unpretentious office in Swannanoa, NC. His company headquarters, with the attendant staff, remains in his native Mississippi. The distance is no problem since Weidie, like Tom Fazio and so many other entrepreneurs and CEO’s who live in Western North Carolina, has found he can reach just about anywhere in his business area very efficiently through the use of high-speed, turbine powered general aviation aircraft. Weidie is an instrument and commercial rated pilot and flies a twin-engine Beech King Air for most of his travel needs.
The question we had in 2009 is the same one we wanted to ask this year. Are alternative fuels a reality? Are they market-ready? What is the best solution to reducing dependency on unreliable overseas oil suppliers? Should we be using ethanol mixed with gasoline? Is diesel the best way to go, or is it better to switch to liquefied propane (LPG) or maybe to compressed natural gas (CNG)?
It may sound like the good old days but when our previous article appeared in March of 2009, gasoline sold for $1.85 per gallon. Having grown up with gas prices ranging from 25 to 99 cents per gallon, America was outraged. Democrats and Republicans were outraged. Everyone was outraged.
The public blamed the high prices and 10 percent unemployment on George W. Bush, “Big Oil”, Republicans, the war in Iraq, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. The American public was fed up, wanted change in Washington and voted Barack Obama into office primarily because they were fed up and just wouldn’t take it anymore.
Unfortunately, the so-called Bush recession only got worse and the national average price for gasoline more than doubled under the new administration, reaching $3.93 per gallon early in 2012.
The peak prices weren’t entirely the fault of the Obama administration but ill-advised Department of Energy and other Executive Branch loans to so-called green energy companies didn’t pan out. Federal spending set new records, and it seemed that any company with a weird, green-sounding name and the ability to visit the White House could receive federal subsidies. Everybody was in line for a handout. Everybody, that is, but the oil, natural gas and propane industries.
Well before Obama, under the Bush administration, Congress had passed laws that allowed ethanol content of up to 15 percent for almost all gasoline sold in the U.S. The new regulations also stated that biofuel usage would reach 15 billion gallons by 2012 and 36 billion gallons by 2020. Biofuels categorically include ethanol, recycled deep-fat fryer grease and anything else politicians deem worthy of subsidy.
Investors Business Daily looked at the issue of using corn for fuel and reported the whole idea was ridiculous. An IBD editorial reported, “It takes 1,700 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol. Each acre of corn also requires 130 pounds of nitrogen and 55 pounds of phosphorous. Increased acreage means increased agricultural runoff that is creating aquatic dead zones in our rivers, bays and coastal areas.”
Inconvenient facts didn’t slow congressional efforts to change market forces. While Congress was losing its collective mind, state and municipal governments also attempted to mandate uneconomic solutions to fight air pollution and the ever increasing cost of oil. Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) appeared to be one of the best options. In 2007 the City of Asheville installed a CNG refueling station for public and government use at McCormick Place, near downtown. Unfortunately, five years later the primary users continue to be city and county owned vehicles and fewer than a dozen cars, trucks and other vehicles owned by Mission Healthcare.
Statewide the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reports there are just 14 CNG refueling stations.
Meanwhile, AutoGas (propane) has expanded to include Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department cruisers, Mountain Mobility of Asheville and the Biltmore Estate. Other prominent users in North Carolina include the Davidson County Transportation Department, Gaston County Access, Iredell County Area Transportation System, the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office, the Town of Knightdale and many more.
Propane is clobbering CNG for many reasons
First, there is cost. To maintain its liquid state, Compressed Natural Gas has to be kept at pressures of 2,900 to 3,600 psi. This necessitates a significant expenditure for refueling stations on the order of $1.5 million each. The Asheville CNG facility was built with federal state and local government funding including a $400,000 state grant. Each CNG vehicle is equipped with a high-pressure CNG tank that requires inspection every three years and replacement after 15. Propane tanks are just 120 to 177 psi and inspections are only required every 12 years.
Second, there is the question of practicality. According to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) the average CNG vehicle has a range of only 120 to 180 miles per tank. In addition, DENR adds a little note that, “Unlike the standard gasoline vehicle, when the CNG vehicle runs out of fuel it must be towed to the closest refueling site”. That problem does not apply to dual-fuel conversions of either CNG or LPG.
Finally, the speed of filling a CNG tank ranges from ten minutes to eight hours depending on the size of the tank and what equipment is used. Faster times means higher equipment costs. Any attempt to expand the CNG programs from a few experimental installations to nationwide use would require tens to hundreds of billions of dollars in new investments. You could forget the Mom & Pop gas stations and convenience stores. The economic model for them just doesn’t exist.
Despite the facts, North Carolina’s Republicans are seemingly no more immune to do-gooder legislative insanity than are the Democrats. At the time of this writing the Republican led Senate Energy Legislative Research Commission has put forward a measure to mandate that all North Carolina school buses and half of the DOT pickup truck fleet be required to use CNG instead of gasoline, diesel or propane.
Weidie points out that under ideal circumstances with just one CNG station in each county and multiple filling pumps, the proposed new law could cost well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. There still would be no solution to the issue of time required to refuel each bus or pickup truck. With a minimum refueling time of 30 minutes per vehicle the foolishness of the expenditure would be balanced only by the impossibility of getting it done in a timely manner.
By contrast, Weidie says 100 AutoGas propane filling stations could be built, one in each county, for the cost of three CNG stations. Refueling a propane tank takes the same amount of time as diesel or gasoline and the lower cost per pump allows for multiple pumps to be installed at each refueling facility.
Despite having the facts readily at hand for the legislators to peruse, Weidie and the propane industry were denied an opportunity to make a presentation. He wound up publishing a letter to the editor in the Raleigh News & Observer.
Weidie has worked tirelessly and written extensively about the benefits of propane powered vehicles and the Alliance AutoGas program.
“We see the use of propane finally beginning to take off,” Weidie says. “We’ve had four hard years trying to get it introduced. Now we see broad acceptance in fleet service and much greater interest from consumers.”
“No one other than Alliance AutoGas has the full package,” Weidie says. “AutoGas for cars and light trucks is completely seamless. The vehicle retains its standard gasoline system and uses gasoline for starting. A few seconds after startup the system automatically switches to the propane tank. The switch is indiscernible to the driver. The power is the same, the engine sounds the same.”
But is propane more efficient and cleaner than gasoline, or ethanol-gasoline?
By all accounts, yes. According to the Hoover Institution’s Henry Miller and professor Colin Carter of the University of California, Davis, “ethanol yields about 30% less energy per gallon of gasoline, so miles per gallon in internal combustion engines drop significantly.”
Both propane-Auto Gas and CNG run cleaner than gasoline. This extend the life of the engine as well as oil change intervals. Ethanol-gasoline, whether 10 percent mandated by the federal government or the newly authorized E85 (15 percent) runs dirtier, costs more and is highly corrosive.
Ethanol, in fact, appears to be the worst possible alternative. Left in an open container it quickly evaporates. This not only destroys its value (it’s gone) but it creates air pollution as well. When it leaks into the engine it corrodes components such as gaskets and aluminum intake manifolds and destroys the lubrication ability (lubricity) of engine oil. It is so corrosive that it cannot be transported through pumps and pipelines but must be delivered by rail or in tanker trucks.
Ethanol’s one redeeming quality is that corn belt politicians almost always support any politician who supports them. Take it to the bank.
To say ethanol in gasoline is a dumb idea is like saying don’t put Ben-Gay in your underpants. In January 2012, Congress allowed the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit to expire. Within two months Archer Daniel Midlands announced the closing of their ethanol production facility in Walhalla, North Dakota. It may have been coincidental but a similar $100 million facility in Hoke County, NC, closed in early 2011. Others are expected to follow suit.
Without federal ethanol subsidies and mandates, Popcorn Sutton and Junior Johnson would still be the world’s most famous ethanol producers. Also, arguably, there would be less reason for Mexicans to migrate to the US, and corn on the cob, tacos and every other foodstuff would be a lot less expensive.
The payback for vehicles using AutoGas (conversions cost about $5,000) depends on their size, normal mileage and the miles driven per year. Alliance AutoGas has created a savings calculator at www.allianceAutoGas.com. Eventually, perhaps in just a few years, more AutoGas refueling stations will be built and the conversion will be even more practical.
Weidie’s grin grows very large when he talks about conversions. “The business is beginning to take off,” Weidie says. “Right now we’re working with major fleet operators. We tell them up front that there is no silver bullet for reducing emissions, gaining fuel economy, reducing reliance on foreign oil suppliers and having extended range and flexibility of fuels. But AutoGas is a lot closer to being that silver bullet than any other product.”
“Over the past four years we have averaged saving our fleet customers $1.35 per gallon of fuel,” Weidie says. “Even in 2012, when gasoline prices spiked and the 50 cent per gallon alternative fuel tax credit expired, we are still able to save our customers $1.65 per gallon,” Weidie says. Three years ago, Weidie acknowledged there were significant barriers to the use of AutoGas ranging from authorized conversion centers to refueling stations. Today those barriers are far less significant. In fact, the Alliance AutoGas and its partners are achieving remarkable success. Even manufacturers and racers such as Jack Roush are beginning to pay attention. “This is going to be a very significant business,” Weidie says. “It really makes sense. I think the next five years are going to be very exciting.”