Are propane-powered ports the next big thing for the industry? It’s a discussion worth having thanks to the economic and environmental benefits the alternative fuel can offer.
In fact, propane can be a go-to fuel for many port applications for these large-scale operations that place a premium on bottom-line efficiencies while having to comply with ever-increasing environmental regulations.
Propane has been a reliable, trusted engine fuel used in the transportation sector for both on- and off-road vehicles for several decades. Today, propane is used in a wide variety of port applications including forklifts, port and terminal tractors, light- and medium-duty vehicles, shuttles, and even small marine vessels. It’s a proven fuel backed by the most trusted engine and fuel system manufacturers – including Power Solutions International, Agility, Origin, and Cummins, to name a few – producing propane solutions in a variety of horsepower and applications.
Ports see a high number of ships, vessels, barges, and boats on a daily basis, and air quality issues are a particular concern in and around port communities, and momentum to reduce emissions and improve air quality has been growing across the international port industry over the past several years.
Equipment, vehicles, and marine vessels that burn diesel fuel are the primary source of combustion-related emissions at port facilities, according to the EPA.
Propane, on the other hand, is non-toxic, so it does not contaminate air, land, or water resources like gasoline and diesel can. According to the EPA, switching to a cleaner fuel is one of the most effective strategies for emissions reduction, alongside replacing older diesel fleets and operational improvements to reduce idling. While electrification of equipment can offer emission reductions, propane is a cleaner, more cost-effective fuel solution compared to electric, diesel, and gasoline.
Diesel engines are the current workhorse of the American economy, and although they can be reliable and efficient, older diesel engines can emit significant amounts of air pollution, including particulate matter, NOx, and carbon dioxide, according to the EPA.
That’s not the case with propane. The Propane Education & Research Council, in partnership with the Gas Technology Institute, conducted a comparative emissions analysis of propane in key markets, including material handling, from 2016-2019. The study revealed that propane forklifts had an edge over gasoline, diesel, and electric-powered equipment. According to the study, best-in-class propane forklift engines can produce 97 percent fewer NOx emissions when compared with similarly-sized diesel forklifts engines without any drop-off in payload or power. Data from Nexight revealed that they produce 97 percent fewer hydrocarbons, too.
For smaller material handling needs in ports, propane is a cleaner choice than electric, too. Compared with electric, propane can reduce SOx emissions by 76 percent. While it’s true that electric equipment produces zero emissions during normal operation, its full emissions profile is often overlooked. It’s important to account for the emissions produced in the creation and transmission of electricity, including all of the emissions produced at coal-fired plants where electricity is generated, as well as the emissions output during transportation to the facility.
In addition to propane-powered material handling equipment, crews can keep emissions low in and around the port by driving propane autogas vehicles, including port or terminal tractors, light-duty vehicles, and work trucks. Terminal tractors powered by propane autogas produce 12 percent fewer lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline-fueled terminal tractors, according to data from the Argonne National Laboratory. And propane autogas vehicles reduce NOx emissions by up to 36 percent compared to diesel vehicles, greenhouse gas emissions by up to 22 percent compared to gasoline vehicles, and up to 45 percent less particulate matter than electric vehicles throughout the full fuel cycle.
Once again, while electric vehicles often claim to produce zero emissions, it is important to note that emissions may be created by the source of electric power generation or the fleet’s choice for required auxiliary heating options – which should be included in the comparisons. Emissions include those produced in electric generation and its transmission to the final point of use, as well as during battery production, transportation, and disposal.
Beyond powering on- and off-road vehicles, propane can also provide power generation and peace of mind to port facilities. Cold-ironing or alternative marine power is an effective way of reducing air emissions and improving local air quality. One way to provide ports with shore power is with commercial propane generators. By incorporating propane as a power solution, ports alleviate the need, and reliance, on grid-based shore power options.
Commercial propane generators provide supplemental power for electrical loads – even when power from the electric grid is interrupted. Loss of grid power can occur at any time, and when it does, can affect vital systems and have a significant impact on a port’s operation. Commercial propane generators are used in, and trusted by, hospitals, offices, fire and police departments, restaurants, education facilities, retail stores, and more to ensure uninterrupted operation and peace of mind.
These units are typically installed as fully automated systems that ramp up quickly to provide power after an electric grid disruption. In fact, commercial propane-powered standby generators supply supplemental electricity in as little as 10 seconds after an outage. Plus, propane-powered generators offer clear advantages when considering fuel storage, fuel maintenance, and reliability. First, the indefinite shelf life of propane makes it an ideal generator fuel, whereas diesel degrades over time. Propane also burns cleaner than diesel and can be stored onsite, either above or below ground, without risk of ground or ground water contamination. Diesel, on the other hand, has the potential for contamination from spills and leaks that are retained in the soil.
By having a commercial propane-powered standby generator onsite, ports can rest easy, knowing they have true resiliency, security, and peace of mind. Propane also offers portable generator options for smaller, more specific power needs.
US Seaports alone account for more than 23 million jobs and seaport cargo activity accounts for 26 percent of the country’s economy, according the EPA’s National Port Strategy Assessment, published in 2016.
A small operational savings or improvements in efficiencies can have a tremendous impact on a port’s balance sheet. When comparing fuel and operating costs of propane applications in ports against other fuels – including gasoline, diesel, and electric – propane again takes top billing in a variety of applications.
Forklifts powered by propane consistently cost less than other fuels and provide cost savings throughout ownership. Propane forklifts are less expensive at acquisition than electric, and Tier-4 requirements can add thousands of dollars to the purchase price of diesel equipment. Plus, electric forklifts are costly once you consider the utility costs of keeping them charged. Battery life and power output for electric forklifts also diminish over time and lead to future costs that can go overlooked, including additional costly batteries.
In contrast, an investment in propane cylinders and storage cages can last decades. Beyond the initial equipment purchase and cost of fuel, companies are only responsible for buying and storing the cylinders – which can last up to 27 years of use, three times as long as the average forklift battery. Companies may also be able to lock in a fuel price with their local propane retailer, providing more financial peace of mind.
Propane autogas provides the lowest total cost-of-ownership of any fuel, in part because of its reliable performance and low costs for fuel, infrastructure, and maintenance. Propane autogas vehicles are typically less expensive to purchase than electric vehicles and natural gas vehicles, and can save up to 50 percent on fuel costs compared to gasoline and diesel. Plus, because propane is a clean fuel, unexpected maintenance occurs less. Propane doesn’t corrode engine parts or require additional filtration and emissions systems, and there aren’t expensive add-ons to comply with ever more-stringent emissions restrictions, like with diesel.
It’s also important to consider costs associated with refueling and recharging infrastructure, as there are drastic differences between propane autogas and electric vehicles. The cost to install infrastructure for propane autogas vehicles with a single 1,000 to 2,000-gallon tank is up to $60,000, including as much as $36,000 for site preparation and equipment, and up to $24,000 for installation. In some cases, a propane supplier may own the infrastructure and lease it to fleet owners, lowering the overall costs.
In comparison, the cost to set up infrastructure for electric vehicles with five level 3 fast EV chargers is up to $480,000, including as much as $200,000 for site prep and equipment, and up to $280,000 for installation. Unlike propane autogas infrastructure, electric infrastructure will most likely have additional costs for items like electric sub-panels, added amperage to power multiple stations, and upgrading and replacing incoming power lines.
For ports needing tanks larger than 2,000 gallons, it’s important to keep in mind the scalability of propane. Propane autogas refueling stations can easily grow to accommodate increasing fleet size with more fuel storage tanks or larger ones. Electric charging stations, on the other hand, may require additional chargers, additional panels to accommodate amperage, new power drops (the overhead electrical line running from a utility pole to the customer’s building), upgrades to the grid transformer so the electric company can supply the power necessary for the site, and additional ventilation if charging in a covered area, if the EV fleet size increases.
The refueling process itself is something to take into consideration, too. With propane autogas, the quick-connect nozzle and fuel dispenser provides a quick, convenient and safe refueling experience which requires minimal downtime, allowing drivers to get back to work promptly. With electric vehicles using a standard charger, vehicles require 8 to 10 hours to reach a full charge and express chargers require 1.6 hours to reach a full charge, demanding fleet owners to plan downtime for vehicles before they are back up and on the road. For comparison, a fleet of 10 propane autogas vehicles can refuel from a single hose in just over two hours. Recharging a fleet of 10 similar electric vehicles in the same time frame would require separate charging stations for every one or two vehicles.
Propane has been, and continues to be, a trusted fuel by material handling professionals across the country and its use is expanding in and around the nation’s largest ports. Users trust the fuel for its reliability, versatility, and ability to contribute to a cleaner environment. By incorporating propane equipment into a port’s day-to-day operations, economic growth can go hand-in-hand with continued improvements in the health and welfare of near-port communities and the safeguarding of our environment.
Jeremy Wishart is director of off-road business development for the Propane Education & Research Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.