COLUMBIA — For many consumers, propane can conjure up images of barbecue grills, furnaces and water heaters.
But propane is also the most widely used alternative fuel source for vehicles in the U.S. There are more than 2,500 fueling stations nationwide and more than 200,000 propane-fueled vehicles on the road, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
In the past decade, ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen and other alternative fuels have risen to the forefront of the U.S. effort to reduce dependence on foreign oil and protect the environment. Propane is rarely part of the conversation.
"Personally, I think (other alternative fuels) have better lobbies," said Steve Clayton, general manager for Ferrellgas, a propane company in Columbia. "Plus, this is corn country. But if you're analyzing fuel performance, (other alternative fuels are) not very good."
Clayton was driving a liquid propane-injected Ford F-250 in Columbia last week to demonstrate what he called propane's alternative fuel benefits for people considering propane conversion for their vehicles.
Most vehicles that use propane for fuel are large fleets of pickup trucks and vans; transit and school buses; and off-road and construction vehicles such as forklifts or loaders.
Fleets are typically composed of high-mileage vehicles that consume large amounts of fuel within a limited radius. The sizable investment to convert a gas tank to run on propane is therefore more reasonable than it would be for someone driving back and forth to work every day.
Columbia Transit does not operate any vehicles on propane, something Clayton hopes to change.
He said Ferrellgas is interested in talking to the city, MU, the Missouri Department of Transportation and any other organizations with fleets that could potentially benefit from converting their vehicles to run on propane.
The Schwan Food Company's entire fleet of 6,700 trucks runs on propane, including those that refuel at Schwan's Sales Enterprises in Columbia. Lee's Tire Company of Columbia converted one of its Ford E-450 vans to run on propane about a year ago.
"We run so many miles, we were looking for any way possible to save money," said Jeff Sexton, wholesale route supervisor for Lee's Tire. "We go 350 to 450 miles a day ... we figure we gain 4 or 5 miles per gallon (using propane)."
Advances in research and technology have made alternative fuels more viable today than ever before. Propane has an advantage over fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel in that infrastructure is already in place.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are about 2,500 propane refueling stations nationwide, including 60 in Missouri and two in Columbia.
Propane reduces carbon dioxide and monoxide emissions, is less toxic than gasoline and is stored in tightly sealed containers to protect from evaporation or leakage into the atmosphere according to the Propane Education and Research Center's Web site.
Like other alternative fuels, propane has its drawbacks. One of the primary market barriers keeping propane from gaining prominence as an attractive alternative fuel for the average consumer is the cost to convert a gas tank to run on propane — anywhere from $4,000 to $12,000, according to the Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center.
Vehicles that run on propane were typically manufactured to run on gasoline and later converted. A vehicle can be converted to run solely on propane (mono-fuel) or to run on both propane and gasoline (the more popular dual-fuel).
Propane also contains less energy than gasoline and therefore has a shorter driving range. Conversion requires a separate tank that takes up space and can weigh a vehicle down.
Tax incentives in place to encourage propane use in vehicles include a $0.50 per gallon tax credit for every gallon used and a 50 percent rebate of the incremental cost of conversion up to $5,000 per vehicle, according to the vehicles data center.
A complete list of Missouri tax credits for propane use is available on the U.S. Department of Energy's Web site.