It’s time to rev our engines

November 1, 2008 By    

Maybe propane’s role as a motor fuel will finally find some traction now that the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) is committing big bucks to equipment development and promotion.

Patrick Hyland
Patrick Hyland

In its largest engine fuel project ever, PERC just spent $4.7 million to extend its partnership with Roush Industries to produce a series of propane-fueled Ford pickup trucks aimed at fleet owners. See full story “Stock Index”.

Equally important, the council is planning to cut a much bigger slice of its $20 million-a-year consumer awareness campaign pie to push motor fuel usage starting in 2009.

That’s a significant strategy shift from the almost exclusive focus on home heating that has been promoted in nationwide advertising the past 10 years. And it certainly won’t be an easy sell to propane marketers who have historically been loathe to push motor fuel sales.

But the change, urged by PERC’s new marketing gurus at Colle+McVoy, makes sense for a number of reasons:

  • The new home construction market that has traditionally gotten the lion’s share of ad campaign funds isn’t likely to get up off the canvas before 2012. PERC will continue to work with architects and homebuilders looking to differentiate themselves during this prolonged market slump, but the awareness blitz to the general public will be curtailed.
  • New and improved motor fuel products are ready to hit targeted markets (school buses, light- and medium-duty trucks, vans and shuttles). New engines already have bolstered sales of fuel for forklifts, farm equipment, lawn mowers, stationary pumps and generators over the last few years.
  • All-time high diesel and gasoline prices have pushed public concern about the environment and foreign oil independence to crescendo levels. Receding oil prices could change that dynamic, of course.
  • Propane already is the leading alternative fuel in the country, with some 275,000 on-road vehicles and a more extensive refueling infrastructure than ethanol or natural gas.
  • The number of propane vehicles in use in the United States has risen steadily since its nadir in 1995, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
  • The federal government has extended a 50-cent-per-gallon fuel tax credit through the end of 2009 and the propane refueling infrastructure tax credit through the end of 2010.
  • Motor fuel gallons provide vital off-season load that doesn’t stress seasonal staff or the supply chain.

Victories in this frustrating market niche won’t come easy, however, as the industry has painfully learned over the last 40 years.

It still lacks a volume of economically competitive propane engines to promote in the market. Its partnerships with key original equipment manufacturers, government and industry organizations remains disappointingly limited despite focused efforts in recent years. And we have no aftermarket tools whatsoever.

Worse, there remains a dire lack of information and education among consumers and propane marketers alike. How does propane stack up against other alternative fuels in cost value, emissions, maintenance, performance and fuel economy? We have a good, competitive story to tell, but nobody knows it.

PERC’s investment in equipment and outreach can help level the playing field against inferior alternative fuel vehicles that are well ahead in sales because of superior promotion.

The months-long clamoring about new energy sources throughout the presidential campaign underscored the need for propane to find its place in the national dialogue. There is a unique opportunity right now to elevate propane from a functional fuel to a vital component of the national energy solution.

But we have to act now or forever be left behind the new players, new money and new ideas that are forging the path of tomorrow.

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