By Dale Deal
It’s cheaper and cleaner than what we pump into our cars, comes almost entirely from domestic sources, and yet in Asheville, not many folks seem aware of this alternative fuel.
Stuart Weidie wants to change that perception about propane. President and CEO of Blossman Gas and Alliance Autogas, Weidie and his company are renovating an 8,000-square-foot building on Sweeten Creek Road to house the National Autogas Research and Technology Center.
Autogas is the transportation fuel version of propane — used in some 23 million vehicles globally, but perhaps only 285,000 vehicles in the U.S. “That’s less than all the cars in the Dominican Republic,” Weidie said.
But propane dealers, like the 62-year-old Blossman Services, which pipes the gas through the Southeast and delivers to some markets in the Midwest, see an expanding market.
The surge in domestically produced natural gas, which includes propane as a byproduct, has turned the U.S. into an energy exporter in the past few years.
Propane typically runs less than $2 a gallon with tax credits, cheaper than the $3.36 average for regular gas in Asheville.
At about $5,000 per vehicle, propane conversions prove less expensive than compressed natural gas, which requires more infrastructure and built-out pipe lines.
Large fleets can see substantial savings within only a few years, investing in propane-run vehicles, Weidie said.
Alliance Autogas is a joint effort of some 100 companies nationwide with 50 conversion stations across the country.
The research center in Asheville will import a top Dutch technology from a company called PRINS, test and certify the kits, and train technicians from across the country how to install them on fleets of school buses and other vehicles.
“Asheville is going to be the hub of all this technology,” said Jesse Johnson, president of Blossman Services.
The center should open in the spring.
The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department already has 10 patrol cars running on propane, paid for under a federal stimulus grant.
Mountain Mobility runs its vans on the alternative fuel. Biltmore Estate converted two of its shuttle buses, while Warren Wilson College has powered its lawnmowers with propane for the past decade.
Statewide, some 20 fleets run on propane, including the Raleigh Police Department.
But new technology underway in Asheville starting next year could pave the way for even more fleets, including school buses, to make use of cleaner burning propane.
Researchers are already looking at systems that could mix diesel and propane in truck engines, which could radically change the transportation industry, Johnson said.
That research could mean new jobs, as well. Blossman Services, which employs about 60 people across Western North Carolina, has hired 14 workers in the past year as part of the autogas initiative.
Propane is still a fossil fuel, but it’s much cleaner than petroleum and could serve as “a bridge fuel” as other alternative fuels become more viable for cars and trucks, Weidie said.