Considering refueling with propane autogas or recharging with electric? Here’s what to know

By Michael Taylor

As more shuttle and paratransit fleet owners face pressure to reduce emissions and create a cleaner and safer environment for their communities, many operators have turned to alternative propulsion options like propane autogas and electric to reach sustainability goals.

Prior to making the transition to any alternative fuel, there are several important factors fleet owners need to consider when determining which fuel is the best option for their paratransit or shuttle bus fleet. In addition to a fuel’s emissions profile, fleet owners must consider the costs required to install refueling or recharging infrastructure as well as to the performance of the new vehicles.

Fuel options abound for emissions reductions

One of the primary reasons operators transition to using alternative propulsion is to reduce their emissions, whether it’s mandated by federal, state or local government regulations or simply part of a company’s mission. Thanks to emerging propane autogas technology from companies like Roush CleanTech and others, propane autogas is delivering near-zero emissions for its customers. New “ultra-low NOx” propane engines are 98 percent cleaner than current standards mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In recent years electric vehicles’ popularity has increased because the technology is perceived as clean and green with zero emissions. However, it is important to note that emissions may be created by the source of electric power generation or the fleet owner’s choice for required auxiliary heating options and should be included in the comparisons.

While both options exceed EPA mandated tailpipe emissions levels, there are some differences in emissions throughout the full emissions cycle of the vehicles. Propane autogas can emit 70 percent fewer sulfur oxide (SOx) emissions and up to 45 percent less particulate matter than electric vehicles from well-to-wheels.

Think about infrastructure costs

When transitioning to propane autogas or electric vehicles, fleet owners and operators need to identify all visible and hidden costs that go along with refueling or recharging infrastructure installations, because there are some dramatic differences between the two. Below is a breakdown of infrastructure costs between the two alternatives, comparing each based on a fleet size of 10 vehicles.

The cost to install infrastructure for 10 propane autogas vehicles with a single 1,000- to 2,000-gallon tank is up to $60,000, including as much as $36,000 for site preparation and equipment, and up to $24,000 for installation. In some cases, a propane supplier may own the infrastructure and lease it to fleet owners, lowering the overall costs.

In comparison, the cost to set up infrastructure for 10 electric vehicles with five level 3 fast EV chargers is up to $480,000, including as much as $200,000 for site prep and equipment, and up to $280,000 for installation. Unlike propane autogas infrastructure, electric infrastructure will most likely have additional costs for items like electric sub-panels, added amperage to power multiple stations, and upgrading and replacing incoming power lines. Similar to propane autogas, electric vehicle recharging stations also have a leasing option.

Is the fleet going to grow?

Fleet owners should also keep in mind the need for scalability as their fleet increases, because the costs to expand infrastructure required to accommodate a growing fleet are drastically different for the two forms of propulsion.

Propane autogas refueling stations can easily grow to accommodate increasing fleet size with more fuel storage tanks or larger ones. In comparison, electric charging stations may require additional chargers, additional panels to accommodate amperage, new power drops (the overhead electrical line running from a utility pole to the customer’s building), upgrades to the grid transformer so the electric company can supply the power necessary for the site, and additional ventilation if charging in a covered area, if the EV fleet size increases.

Consider the refueling process itself

In addition to the cost of fuel and infrastructure installation, fleet owners should consider the amount of down time required for refueling or recharging. With propane autogas, the quick-connect nozzle and fuel dispenser provides a quick, convenient and safe refueling experience which requires minimal downtime, allowing drivers to get back on the route.

With electric vehicles using a standard charger, vehicles require 8 to 10 hours to reach a full charge and express chargers require 1.6 hours to reach a full charge. This requires fleet owners to plan downtime for vehicles before they are back up and on the road. For comparison, a fleet of 10 propane autogas vehicles can refuel from a single hose in just over two hours. Recharging a fleet of 10 similar electric vehicles in the same time frame would require separate charging stations for every one or two vehicles.

Additional costs and performance

As with any fuel alternative there are additional costs associated with more than just the infrastructure. There’s also the refueling/recharging costs themselves. Propane autogas refueling costs are stable throughout the year, and fleet managers can secure lower prices by securing a fuel contract. Electricity costs vary throughout the day and can increase if the demand for power exceeds a station’s capabilities. In comparison, propane autogas refueling stations also have lower annual maintenance costs than similar capacity electric vehicle recharging stations.

When you factor in the cost of a new vehicle, regardless of fuel type and the costs for fuel, fluids, maintenance and repairs over the lifetime of the vehicle, propane autogas has the lowest cost of any fuel for the lifetime of the vehicle.

As for performance, an electric shuttle has a full driving range of about 120 miles on a single charge, which is fine if the fleet is planned for short runs with little variation in its use. Bear in mind that operating any electric option while the vehicle is in use can diminish the driving range. This includes heat, air conditioning, windshield wipers and the radio. Propane autogas shuttles feature proven technology that can provide a range of more than 400 miles on a single refueling.

While lowering emissions is typically the deciding factor for many operators making the transition to an alternative fuel, there are many other things that fleet owners need to take into consideration before committing to any form of propulsion. By keeping these costs and considerations in mind and making fact-based comparisons, fleet owners are more likely to make an informed and educated decision on the best alternative for their needs.

For more information on refueling with propane autogas, visit propane.com.


Michael Taylor is the director of autogas business development for the Propane Education & Research Council. He can be reached at michael.taylor@propane.com.

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