My turn: Powering our vehicles with propane and CNG

Posted: Monday, February 01, 2010

How ironic that the Legislature spent so much time over the past couple of years trying to figure out how to reduce the price Alaskans pay at the pump for gasoline, while at the same time continuing to allow our state's refineries to earn an acceptable return on their investment. The irony is that we already have an alternative fuel supply - one that can be less expensive and cleaner-burning as well - in natural gas.

The two primary methods natural gas is used to fuel vehicles are with compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquid petroleum gas, more widely known as propane. CNG is currently used to power more than 8 million vehicles around the world. Propane is also used to fuel vehicles, although propane is most often associated with the 6.9 million homes it heats (according to 2000 data).

More than 10 million vehicles worldwide run on propane. By some estimates, propane could displace nearly 1 billion gallons of gasoline per year by 2017, leading to a significant improvement in air quality.

According to the Alaska Natural Gas Development Authority, the North Slope has substantial quantities of natural gas and that gas contains large amounts of propane. ANGDA further claims that Alaska has the potential to distribute propane to 99 percent of Alaskans via highways, rivers and coastal barges.

Propane has the added benefit of being environmentally friendly. Propane vehicles produce less greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide and particulates, compared to conventional gasoline. In other words, propane can easily meet or exceed current and future emission standards. Power, acceleration, payload and drivability of propane-fueled vehicles are comparable to gasoline and diesel engines.

The concept is proven. The largest school district in Oregon, Portland Public Schools, uses natural gas to transport more than 12,000 students daily, totaling more than 3.5 million miles each year.

Finally, propane offers some distinct economic advantages. The Battelle Memorial Institute found that propane is the most economical alternative fuel for fleets (on a per-mile basis) when operating, ownership and infrastructure costs are all taken into consideration.

Unfortunately, both the Anchorage and the State of Alaska refused to consider propane last spring. The budgets passed by the Legislature in April of 2009 included millions of dollars for the purchase of new and replacement vehicles for both the state and municipal fleets. However, neither the state or the municipality was willing to even consider propane-powered vehicles.

Instead we'll continue to rail against refiners and high gasoline prices, take umbrage at the EPA when we fail emissions tests, and argue over vehicle emissions testing. But we deserve better.

Even more ludicrous is Anchorage's unwillingness to consider a readily-available source of inexpensive compressed natural gas. Every day the municipal landfill produces enough methane gas that could be treated, compressed and used to equate to as much as 5,000 gallons of gasoline. Instead of processing the methane or selling it to a third party, the municipality burns the gas.

Because Anchorage lacks convenient "fast-fill" stations similar to the corner gasoline station, Alaskans who recognize the benefits of CNG are installing personal "slow-fill" systems in their homes. This is the result of a classical "chicken and egg" scenario. Entrepreneurs are unwilling to invest in erecting fast-fill stations because there is very little demand. People are unwilling to buy propane or CNG-powered vehicles because there is little supply. Utah's legislature resolved this dilemma by providing seed money for fast-fill stations, a prime example of government being the logical solution to an investment problem. The state of Alaska could provide seed money as loans to entrepreneurs, and Alaskans would have access to cheaper fuel for their vehicles. As a result our air would be cleaner.

I urge the governor and mayor of Anchorage to follow the lead of other states that have provided incentives for the construction of "fast-fill" CNG or propane stations.

• Sen. Fred Dyson, a Republican, is a mariner, former commercial fisherman and oil industry engineer. He represents Eagle River, Chugiak and parts of Northeast Anchorage.

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