Focusing on propane’s future

November 1, 2004 By    

Keynoting the recent second annual Texas Propane Technology Forum at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio was my first real opportunity to look closely at the propane industry’s research and development programs. I was impressed with what I saw.

We’ve all heard it said that the propane business is a mature industry, that the only way we can grow is by buying each other up. We’ve seen the statistics that project slow growth or no growth in retail gallons, even though Texas’ population is increasing.The work presented was wide-ranging and of high quality — signs that the industry’s strategy in these areas is starting to pay off.

That’s one way to look at it. But forum attendees heard many opinions about how to grow new gallons by using propane to:

  • Generate electricity in fuel cells and in combined heat and power units;
  • Limit mold growth by controlling humidity in homes;
  • Power school buses and propane bobtails with emissions so low they qualify for air-quality incentives;
  • Kill germs and reduce losses in poultry houses;
  • Reclaim the manufactured-housing appliance market;
  • Defoliate cotton, improve lint quality;
  • Grow soybeans without chemicals for the premium-priced organic market.
  • Dry subsoil on highway projects.

New Technology = New Gallons

The first job for a research and development program is to bring new technology to market. That is happening.

Equipment that was experimental three years ago — like the early heat sterilizers for houses that produce broiler chickens — has been tested, re-engineered and put into commercial production and use thanks to a PERC-funded, AFRED-directed program involving a University of Arkansas poultry scientist, a Texas A&M University agricultural engineer, an entrepreneurial manufacturer, and a forward-thinking propane marketer.

Similarly, the idea that propane can control weeds and yield premium prices for organic soybean growers — only a theoretical possibility three years ago — is now fact. It, too, was a team effort spearheaded by a grant to AFRED from PERC, which sponsored two years of field trials by Mississippi State University’s Delta Research and Extension Center.

Forum attendees also heard about new technologies just around the corner, like a propane residential dehumidifier; a 260-hp LPG bobtail/bus engine; a combination space heater/water heater for HUD-code manufactured homes; and electric co-generators built around the Marathon LPG engine.

More Benefits

Research and development programs can also benefit marketers and customers by retaining markets, reducing regulatory costs, improving convenience and efficiency and reducing emissions.

For example, two years ago nobody knew if propane forklifts could meet EPA’s tough new 2007 emissions standards. Today we know they will, and more economically than had been anticipated, thanks to another AFRED-directed PERC grant to Jeff White and the SwRI. The same SwRI team and a PERC task force are now looking into fuel-composition issues that become more challenging as forklift emissions standards ratchet down.

Industry research also is addressing challenges to protect propane’s over-the-road motor fuel market.

Two years ago, VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, a leading propane-fueled fleet, was concerned about the failure rates of the overfill prevention devices in its motor-fuel tanks. PERC commissioned SwRI to find out why some OPD’s were failing. SwRI engineer Ana Forster’s report to the Technology Forum concluded that a recent redesign of the piston in the most commonly used motor-fuel OPD has virtually eliminated the problem.

Research can also support positive regulatory actions. At the forum, Bruce Swiecicki of the National Propane Gas Association outlined a new program to determine whether the current five-year interval between hydrostatic tests of bobtail tanks should be extended, and Dr. Denny Stephens of Battelle described his work testing lightweight, transparent LPG cylinders made of composite materials instead of steel in light of federal DOT regulations.

Team Effort, Strong Alliances

I left the forum with two distinct impressions.

The first was an appreciation of how the propane industry has come together as a team around the theme of new technology.

I saw first-hand how the three industry sponsoring organizations — PERC, the Railroad Commission and TPGA — are all pulling in the same direction. I can’t recall a time when all these chairmen, presidents and executive directors shared the spotlight as they did in San Antonio.

I also was impressed with the alliances the propane industry is forging, starting with the Southwest Research Institute — a world-class technology innovator — and extending to partnerships with national institutes and laboratories, universities and a wide range of entrepreneurial private-sector allies, foreign and domestic, large and small.

Our role at the Railroad Commission is to help this process along. We do that by acting as the operating partner for PERC, TPGA and state and federal agencies that have an interest in developing and deploying new propane technology. As a state agency, we also bring to the table our eligibility to compete for federal and state grants, an asset that AFRED has deployed effectively on behalf of the propane industry.

You have my enthusiastic support to continue this work. Keep up the good work and remember, “New Technology Equals New Gallons!”

Victor G. Carrillo is chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas and the Texas Energy Planning Council.

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