Just five days after taking office, President Biden announced that the fleet of federal government vehicles would transition to become entirely electric. This plan is impossibly ambitious and overlooks other, more practical and realistic options to reduce vehicle emissions. Rather than tying itself to battery powered vehicles, the government should also pursue vehicles powered by alternative fuels, especially propane. Liquified petroleum gas (LPG), or propane is reliable, plentiful, domestically produced and clean. Most important, a transition to propane is realistic today.
Among the dozen alternative fuels designated by the Energy Policy Act of 1992 and later definitions, propane is a prime option for any transition for the federal fleet. Propane can be refilled easily from refill tanks, just like gasoline or diesel, and as of last year all new propane powered vehicles are fitted for “one-handed fueling” just like you do at the gas station. For smaller, more basic equipment used for work like turf management at national parks, empty propane cylinders can be switched out of the equipment for full cylinders to expedite refueling. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), there are already “thousands” of propane fueling stations in the U.S., and the government has already studied the ease of increasing infrastructure for propane fleets. Propane offers massive advantages over electric vehicles, which suffer from short driving range and lengthy recharging times that make them impractical for distance driving or heavy loads.
Unlike many other options for alternative fuels, propane is both plentiful and domestically produced. A transition of the U.S. fleet to propane, in large part or fully, would not strain the U.S. fuel supply. Propane can be produced as a byproduct of natural gas, which is so plentiful domestically that, in 2019, it was wasted at the rate of 1.48 billion cubic feet per day in the form of environmentally harmful flaring at the wellhead. Comparatively, America lacks a competitive advantage on the batteries used in electric vehicles, and the materials required for those batteries are not plentiful or easily accessible. The Wall Street Journal reports that, “nearly 65% of lithium ion batteries come from China,” and more than a third of all such batteries are used in vehicles. Batteries are produced with metals like cobalt which are mined around the world, sometimes alleged to be mined by child labor.
Critically, converting to battery powered vehicles would strain the electric grid—in some cases beyond capacity. According to the General Services Administration, in 2019, the Postal Service operated almost 226,000 vehicles, 35% of the total government fleet. Mail carriers return from their routes around the same time every afternoon, and rigs deliver their cargo around the same time every morning. The strain on local grids of charging these fleets each day would be unmanageable. However, refueling with propane tanks at each post office would be simple.
Propane use as a vehicle fuel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 13% for the lifecycle of the vehicle. Propane can reduce petroleum use by 99% when it is derived as a byproduct of natural gas. While propane’s fuel economy (miles per gallon) is slightly lower than gasoline’s, propane has a higher octane rating, which allows optimized engines to improve performance and fuel economy. Overall, propane use is a net-positive environmentally and economically over gasoline.
Crucially, the federal government fleet could begin its transition to propane tomorrow. Already, propane is the third most popular fuel for vehicles in the world, and there are already about 200,000 propane vehicles on U.S. roads. The DOE explains that, “a propane vehicle’s power, acceleration, and cruising speed are similar to those of conventionally fueled vehicles.” Propane vehicles are particularly popular for fleet use because of the cost savings and the benefits of refueling from dedicated propane tanks. A propane transition would not require a new fleet, as the DOE points out that a retrofitter can convert, “certain in-service light-, medium- or heavy-duty vehicles for propane operation.” Unlike other developing technologies, propane has been used in vehicles for decades. It is well-tested and safe.
If the Biden administration wishes to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the federal fleet as quickly and efficiently as possible, propane powered vehicles should be part of the policy. For comparison, a fleet of electric vehicles requires all new purchases, electric vehicles perform poorly in extreme heat or cold because of the drain on the battery, and there are no options for heavy-duty electric vehicles available. Propane fueled vehicles can and should be a part of America’s strategy to reduce emissions while keeping our country moving.
About the Author
Ellen R. Wald, Ph. D. is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center and the president of Transversal Consulting. She is the author of “Saudi, Inc.: The Arabian Kingdom’s Pursuit of Profit and Power,” a book on the history and strategy of Aramco and Saudi Arabia.