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Colorado Mountain Express says it’s happy with propane-fueled vans, may add more alt-fuel vehicles to mountain fleet

Colorado Mountain Express says happy with tests of propane autogas-fueled vans. Photo courtesy CME.

Lower costs and reduced emissions help drive shift to gas-fueled passenger vehicles

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — If you’ve taken a ride to or from DIA recently in a Colorado Mountain Express van, there’s a chance you were aboard one of the four vehicles powered by propane, a relatively clean-burning fossil fuel that generates less greenhouse gas emissions.

CME, which operates about 200 vans in Colorado, has been testing the propane-powered vans recently and may add more of the vehicles to its fleet, especially if the refueling infrastructure grows in coming years, according to marketing and sales director John Dawsey.

CME’s price for propane autogas averages $1.72 per gallon, compared to the current average cost for gasoline at $3.80 per gallon in the area. The vans also deliver the performance needed along the I-70 mountain corridor, with equivalent horsepower, torque and towing capacity compared to gasoline versions of the same models.

The engines emit 20 percent less nitrogen oxide emissions, 60 percent less carbon monoxide emissions, and up to 25 percent fewer greenhouse gases.

Dawsey said the test vans have mainly operated on the Summit County to DIA route because the propane refueling station near the airport fits in with the company’s operations. There is also a propane fueling station near the Eagle County Airport, so CME could easily operate the vans in the Vail Valley.

For now, operating propane-powered vans requires an engine retrofit, but Dawsey said the expectation is that more and more manufacturers will make vehicles that come off the assembly line ready to be fitted with alternative fuel conversions.

ROUSH CleanTech, which worked with CME to convert the company’s vans, is a key player in the arena.

CME joins a host of shared-ride transportation companies across the country that have taken notice of the benefits propane autogas brings to the table, not only for their company, but for their customers,” said Todd Mouw, vice president of sales and marketing for ROUSH CleanTech.

“CME has been through years of testing alternative fuel vehicles and we’re now ready to speak about our satisfaction with the performance of propane autogas,” said Robert Tschupp, vice president and general manager of CME. “Propane autogas has become the alternative fuel of choice for the shared-ride industry,” he said.

According to Tschupp, each van is saving CME more than $18,600 at the pump and emitting 42,689 less pounds of carbon dioxide during the 160,000-mile life expectancy of each van.

For refueling the vans, CME worked with Ferrellgas to find accessible refueling locations most convenient for the company, given the areas they serve.

“The fact that propane autogas has such a strong refueling network already in place was appealing to us when we weighed this alternative option against other clean fuels,” said Tschupp.

“The infrastructure cost for propane is much lower. You’re seeing propane proliferate because of that,” Dawsey said. We anticipate that, as the technology is more readily adopted, the infrastructure will grow,” he added.

Exactly when CME will add more propane-powered vehicles in unclear right now. Ford is discontinuing the E-350 series at the end of 2013, to be replaced by a Ford Transit line of vans. Dawsey said he expects that at least some of the newer models will come off the assembly line ready to be easily converted to propane fuel.

Propane is a byproduct of natural gas production and gasoline refining and has commonly been used as a transportation fuel in some areas for decades. Some large cities in the East and Midwest operating fleets of propane-fueled buses since the 1950s.

Propane can easily be stored as a liquid in a relatively small space as compared to other types of gas fuel, notably compressed natural gas, which is mainly methane.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently joined Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin in announcing efforts to promote the use of compressed natural gas in state fleets to help advance CNG in the larger market.

Natural gas requires much more compression to be stored efficiently, potentially turning storage tanks into hazardous self-propelled missiles. On the other hand, natural gas is lighter than air, so if there’s a leak, it dissipates quickly. Propane is heavy and lingers near the ground or in low spots, leading to a different type of hazard.

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