Revving up propane engines

July 1, 2002 By    

Propane-powered engines designed for agricultural operations are being positioned to fuel the farming communities that are being pressed to meet increasingly stringent air quality standards.

The battle is especially intense in California, where the Golden State’s long-standing agricultural exemption from the Clean Air Act has recently been revoked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The move comes as part of an agreement between the EPA and a coalition of environmental groups within the San Joaquin Valley.

This famed fertile valley is the country’s most productive farm region, yet it also ranks as the second-most polluted place in the nation. Its omnipresent soot pollution makes it among the six worst locations for that type of deadly smog. The Clean Air Act requires that each state remedy all major sources of pollution, yet California was the only state in the union to grant agriculture an exemption.

In practical terms, the settlement means that California’s farm community has to clean up its act. A plan to use clean-burning propane engines to help with the cleanup is expected to drive national interest in propane’s low-polluting qualities and high performance standards.

“I think there’s a big future for this,” predicts Robert Jacobs, director of marketing and sales at Delta Liquid Energy of Paso Robles, Calif. “I see a lot of states following California’s lead on a lot of issues, especially emissions.”

In California alone, it is estimated that LPG agricultural pump engines like these from Jasper will reduce smog-forming emissions by 12 tons per day by 2005.
In California alone, it is estimated that LPG agricultural pump engines like these from Jasper will reduce smog-forming emissions by 12 tons per day by 2005.

The prospect of tighter regulations presents a win-win marketing opportunity within this agricultural segment, he observes. Propane marketers who stress “customer awareness” can present a most attractive alternative with clean-burning propane.

“The diesels make the cows look clean,” Robles quips.

Convincing farmers to switch over to propane does have its challenges, however.

“That will be a big problem for these farmers. The gun is at their heads, but diesel is in their veins. They’ll tell you, ‘My grandpappy’s daddy had diesel.'”

Currently 7.5 percent of Delta’s annual sales come from agriculture, and 90 percent of that fuels water-pumping equipment.

The large numbers of existing diesel engines driving field irrigation pumps and vineyard frost-protection misting systems are among the dirtiest pieces of farm equipment within the San Joaquin Valley, according to Angel Robinson, a spokeswoman for Delta and the Propane Promotion Consortium.

“These engines are running all day long polluting the air,” she says. “It’s a no-brainer” that propane is perfect for running these vital elements of the nation’s agricultural production infrastructure.

Propane engines boast a higher return on investment due to lower engine overhaul costs. And with the EPA sniffing around every row of crops, propane leaves behinds no residues, fumes, spills or other calamities associated with diesel or other farm fuels.

Several propane engine projects are in the works. IMPCO, of Sterling Heights, Mich., is producing a 5.7-liter model that cranks out 85 to 120 horsepower. John Deere is piloting a 74-horsepower propane engine for its 5410 series tractor, and Jasper has a propane-powered 101-horsepower, 7.5-liter engine designed for irrigation applications. The Jasper has been certified by the California Air Resources Board.

In California alone there are 45,000 irrigation pumps of all types, and most of them are more than 20 years old - just ripe for replacement with propane models.
In California alone there are 45,000 irrigation pumps of all types, and most of them are more than 20 years old – just ripe for replacement with propane models.

Tests have shown that no measurable amounts of particulate matter – known as PM-10 – are produced by the Jasper engines. PM-10 can cause serious health problems, and it is a highly visible material in the haze known as smog.

“In California alone, it is estimated that LPG agricultural pump engines will reduce smog-forming emissions by 12 tons per day by 2005,” says Calvin Thorn, general manager of Jasper Alternate Fuels, a division of Jasper Engines and Transmissions of Jasper, Ind.

Thorn has high hopes for propane farm engines. “I’d like to see at least a hundred of them out there this year. With this EPA thing it’s only going to grow. I think we’ve paved the way for a lot of companies to go in and do something,” he says.

It is estimated that in California alone there are 45,000 irrigation pumps of all types, and most of them are more than 20 years old – just ripe for replacement.

Nixing NOx

Thus far, seven dirty old diesel pump engines have been taken out of service by Delta crews and replaced with Jaspers in the San Joaquin Valley under grants through The Carl Moyer Program, named after the late champion for cleaner air. The program provides $37 million in grant money to help reduce NOx (oxides of nitrogen) emissions in California. NOx emissions are the focus because they are the main contributor to ozone, one of the most health-damaging components of smog.

The NOx emissions of the Jasper engines are 89 percent less than the diesels they replaced.

“When the Jasper engine is running you do not see or smell any of the black smoke like you see coming out of old diesel engines,” reports Shane Hunt, Delta’s alternative fuel fleet manager.

Joe Flesher of Flesher Farms recently took ownership of three new Jaspers. The Moyer program pays him $93,000 toward the total $104,000 cost for the engine trio. “Propane is quite a bit cheaper than diesel, and it is a lot cleaner,” says Flesher. “Every little bit helps.”

Another pleased recipient is Rene Carreon of Carreon Farms in Bakersfield, Calif. He, used the Moyer grant to purchase three Jasper engines for his vineyards.

“The opportunity of the aid that they are giving us knocked and I opened the door,” Carreon says. “I said ‘come on in’ and I rolled out the red carpet. This replaces the existing polluting motors and offers safer, cleaner-burning and basically pollutant-free engines. It’s a great deal.”

“By providing engine owners with the funds to switch to cleaner technology, they get new engines and everyone gets cleaner air,” says David Crow, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control Office. “It doesn’t get much simpler or better.”

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