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Clean Cities plays role in autogas market development

October 20, 2020 By     0 Comments

On her very first day with Alliance AutoGas, Jessica Johnson traveled 130 miles, from North Carolina to Tennessee, for a Clean Cities event.

Alliance AutoGas had been participating in a vehicle demonstration program, giving local businesses a way to explore and consider propane-fueled vehicles for their fleets. That day four years ago, the company demonstrated a propane-fueled Ford Transit van, a Ford F-150 and an Explorer Interceptor for fleet decision-makers.

“It’s all about education with autogas, and that’s really what the foundation is with the Clean Cities folks,” Johnson says. “They need us to help educate the community, and we’re always willing to do that.”

Johnson says the event in Tennessee, hosted by Tennessee Clean Fuels and the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition, was important from a hands-on educational perspective.

“You can talk about it all day long, but until somebody sits behind the wheel and discovers, ‘Hey, there is no difference [with autogas], and it’s even better and quieter than the van I drive,’ you can’t put that in a PowerPoint,” she says.

Bus fueling photo by Judy Fort, Lone Star Clean Fuels

Propane industry leaders urge companies involved in the autogas arena to reach out to their Clean Cities coalitions. Photo by Judy Fort, Lone Star Clean Fuels

Today, as the partner and projects liaison for Asheville, North Carolina-based Alliance AutoGas, Johnson works closely with Clean Cities coalitions in the Southeast. Alliance AutoGas’ connection with the Tennessee coalition is just one example of how the propane industry is partnering with Clean Cities across the country to promote autogas.

“The Clean Cities folks really make it possible to reach people in the community because they have their own relationships, so it’s a nice bridge,” Johnson says.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office (VTO) facilitates national coordination of nearly 100 coalitions across the country. VTO designated the first Clean Cities coalition in 1993 in response to the Energy Policy Act of 1992, and coalitions across the country have evolved and expanded since, according to the department. The coalitions are tasked with helping local decision-makers and fleets transition to alternative fuel sources.

Autogas leaders say partnerships with the local coalitions are vital as the industry works to educate and grow the market.

“Our relationship with the Clean Cities coalitions needs constant attention,” says Steve Whaley, the director of autogas business development at the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC). “I don’t think a day goes by that I’m not talking with one of the coordinators across the country.”

Cinch Munson, senior vice president of business development at PERC, calls Clean Cities “absolutely one of our most important partners in this market.”

“We encourage our employees to be engaged with their local Clean Cities because they’re that important,” he adds.

Seeking a solution

While reading his local newspaper last year, David Gable saw an article on the front page about the local school board’s push to reduce the district’s transportation expenses.

Gable, the president of Connecticut-based Hocon Gas who helps fleets convert to autogas, sent a letter to Norwalk Public Schools board of education members and the city’s mayor about the prospects of running the school district’s buses on propane. That letter led to a meeting at the propane retailer’s office with, among others, the superintendent of schools and representatives from Blue Bird and Roush CleanTech, a propane fuel system provider. Also present at that meeting was Lee Grannis, coordinator of the Greater New Haven Clean Cities Coalition. The meeting piqued Norwalk leaders’ interest in autogas, and in just over a year, the school district decided to replace about 70 diesel-powered buses with propane.

“That’s a great example of how Clean Cities brought a lot of credibility to the table,” says T. Michael Morrissey, director of government affairs and business development at the Alternative Fuels Coalition of Connecticut and a propane industry lobbyist. “They brought the comfort to the city to explore in greater detail the viability and advantages of operating on propane. Now it’s a reality.”

When Gable speaks with prospective fleet customers about propane autogas, he says, “bringing in somebody from Clean Cities validates the discussion.”

Clean Cities coalitions hold a fuel-neutral stance and promote the solutions that work best for fleets, Grannis says. When propane is the best solution, Grannis says he calls “the propane team” together – the fuel and fueling infrastructure provider, the OEM and propane conversion system provider, and the Clean Cities representative – to meet with the prospective fleet customer.

Clean Cities coalitions responding to an LP Gas survey cited autogas, electricity and natural gas as alternative fuels most popular in their areas.

“They are committed to being fuel neutral, so they’ll present a number of solutions to the businesses in the community,” Johnson says of Clean Cities. “So at least we’re meeting them and having those conversations, and three years down the road, the business that opted for electric vehicles, we might be able to help them with propane mowers. You never know. It’s nice to be able to nurture those relationships.”

Make that connection

Johnson urges propane industry companies involved in the autogas arena to reach out to their Clean Cities coalitions because, she says, their job is to tell people about autogas. Don’t be intimidated if you only hear about electric vehicles or natural gas vehicles, she adds, because “there’s a place for autogas.”

Once those connections are made, it’s about “pounding the pavement and telling the story and doing the education,” Johnson explains. “Even if you have to give the same autogas 101 presentation three years in a row, you’re going to reach different people every year, and someone is going to hear you. It’s part of the work you have to do; it does pay off.”

Roush CleanTech says it’s a member of many Clean Cities organizations across the country and has had a strong partnership for a decade. It joins local Clean Cities based on its target market areas and where it can best assist customers.

“We also work with Clean Cities to help our customers with funding opportunities and local resources, often hosting events and webinars to share information and best practices,” the company says in a prepared statement.

Live and virtual events serve as a main avenue to bring together autogas market stakeholders. PERC works to facilitate events involving Clean Cities through its Autogas Answers platform. The program promotes the commercialization of propane-powered products for on-road applications, including school buses, shuttles, delivery vehicles and law enforcement applications. Ideally, a state propane association will partner with Clean Cities coalitions, connecting propane marketers and fleet professionals.


LP GAS SURVEY

What Clean Cities coalitions are saying …

About their areas

  • “Michigan has a lot of potential for alternative fuel use growth and is at a point of needing to act [regarding] local priorities related to addressing climate change.”
  • “Ohio has been a great market for propane school buses. Propane airport and other shuttles also have gained traction. We are working with industry partners to focus on commercial markets, and municipal has greater potential, also.”
  • “Opportunity to implement LPG in [California] was crippled. Now with the Roush [near-zero emissions] engine and [renewable LPG], there is a case that can be made.”

About the greatest challenges to alternative fuel adoption

  • “Low cost of gasoline and diesel.”
  • “The electric vehicle supporters think the only propulsion fuel source is electricity and want to ban fossil fuels.”
  • “First cost, education, inertia.”
  • “Budget cuts due to COVID.”
  • “Cost – real and perceived, depending on fuel type.”
  • “Lack of funding for all, and too much focus on EVs!”

About their messages for you, our readers

  • “We are open to more collaboration in Indiana to educate and promote propane.”
  • “It’s vital for the industry to commit to the autogas market and partner with your Clean Cities coalition.”
  • “Keep spreading the word. Amazingly, after many years of doing outreach, lots of users of propane as a heat source still don’t know about its use as a transportation fuel.”
  • “Keep at it; it takes years for change, and the work you do helps see clean air for children and communities.”

By the numbers

258,067 Gallons of traditional petroleum that Centralina Clean Fuels Coalition stakeholders in the Charlotte, North Carolina, region displaced in 2019 through the use of propane.

700 Propane school buses in Connecticut to start this school year.

557 and 444 Light-duty and medium-/heavy-duty propane vehicles that Virginia fleets operate, respectively.

100 Propane-fueled vehicles in the city of Kingsport, Tennessee’s fleet.

20 Percent annual growth of propane autogas vehicles in Alabama.

12 School districts on Long Island that operate propane school buses.

4 and 3 Designated and pending propane corridors in Indiana.

Source: LP Gas survey of Clean Cities coalitions

Featured photo courtesy of Alliance AutoGas

About the Author:

Brian Richesson is the editor in chief of LP Gas Magazine. Contact him at brichesson@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3748.

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