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Shipley Energy finds savings in propane-powered vans

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Matthew Sommer is president of Shipley Group. The York County-based energy company recently converted seven service vans to run on propane.
Matthew Sommer is president of Shipley Group. The York County-based energy company recently converted seven service vans to run on propane. - (Photo / )


America's barbecues run on it, so why not cars, trucks and vans?

In fact, powering vehicles with propane is nothing new, but it's gaining traction, thanks to growing emphasis on cost savings and environmental concerns.

For Shipley Energy, the decision to convert seven of its service vans to propane propulsion certainly took ecology and economy into consideration, but there was also a “why not?” factor.

During a recent interview in which they demonstrated the vehicles, officials with the diverse and growing York-based provider of natural gas, heating oil, electricity and propane acknowledged that it also sets a good example to power its fleet with one of the fuels on which Shipley's business is built.

Propane price history

While the cost of gasoline has recently fallen below propane in many parts of the country, there is a longer story to be found in quarterly Clean Cities Alternative Fuel Price Reports published by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center.

The most recent report, released at the end of July, showed that the national average retail price for propane was $2.90 per gallon, compared with $2.82 for gasoline and $2.93 for diesel.

Keep flipping through the reports, and a trend emerges.

Between July 2011 and July this year, propane stayed comparatively close to the $3 mark for much of the time, AFDC’s reports show, peaking at $3.31 in April 2014 and bottoming out at $2.56 in October 2012.

The swings for gasoline and diesel were sharper.

Both were sold at prices well above propane for much of the period, only dropping below propane during the past year.

Gasoline’s quarterly extremes over the period were $3.89 in April 2012 and $2.30 in January of this year, according to the reports. Diesel, on the other hand, hit $4.13 in October 2012 and $2.88 in April of this year.

“We have seen an increase in interest in alternative-fuel vehicles. We have compressed natural gas tractors on the road, an electric charging station at our office, and these propane-fueled vans,” said Shipley Group President Matthew Sommer.

“The market is evolving and we want to be in a position to help our customers with whatever fuel they choose to use,” Sommer added. “A great way to learn is to do it ourselves and gain that firsthand knowledge. That is a big part of why it made sense to do these conversions now.”

What is propane?

Also known as liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, propane is a colorless and naturally odorless byproduct of natural gas processing and the crude oil refining process. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC), most of the non-toxic, clean-burning propane used in North America is produced domestically, meaning greater use of propane “increases U.S. energy security,” the agency says.

According to Shipley spokesman Matthew Hombach, powering the company's service vans with propane produces less greenhouse gas emissions than using traditional gasoling engines: 12 percent less carbon dioxide, 70 percent fewer smog-producing hydrocarbons, 50 percent less carbon monoxide and 20 percent less nitrogen oxide.

Looking for ROI

Being more green also saves companies green.

Tony Bandiero, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Eastern Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Transportation, said the return on investment from switching to propane is a major motivating factor for the business community.

“The major reason most people are doing it is because of the cost savings,” said Bandiero, whose group has worked with private-sector firms, local governments and school districts on alternative fuel conversion programs in 35 eastern Pennsylvania counties.

“The environmental benefits are great, but most businesses do an ROI and see that you can save money based on that investment,” Bandiero added.

Shipley has seen that, Hombach explained.

Operating seven vans for a year on gasoline would cost $21,438, he said. Running them on propane costs just $13,232, or an annual savings of $8,206.

According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center, it can take more propane to drive the same distance as with gasoline. But propane's clean-burning characteristics mean less wear-and-tear on engines, resulting in lower maintenance costs and longer engine life, the center notes.

Sommer and Shipley Stores President Dave Gruno said the company's vans perform like their gas-powered counterparts, with no difference in handling or acceleration.

State support

For Shipley, another factor was the cost of converting its existing gas-powered vans to use propane. They now can operate on either fuel, as needed.

Hombach said the cost was about $7,000 per van, but the expense was offset by funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

DEP administers two programs designed to promote use of alternative-fuel vehicles: the Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant program, and the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Rebate program, with an emphasis on propane, compressed natural gas and electricity.

The initiatives are designed to decrease Pennsylvania's dependence on imported oil, increase use of the state's indigenous fuels, improve air quality and increase partnerships among businesses, alternative-fuel providers and government agencies, according to DEP.

Other midstate funding recipients in recent years have included Pennsylvania American Water Co. in Dauphin County; Sheetz Inc. in Cumberland County; Aero Energy Inc. in Adams, Cumberland and York counties; the City of Lancaster; and Utz Quality Foods in York County.

In addition to funding, Shipley also has earned industry laurels for its efforts.

Earlier this year, the Greater Valley Forge Transportation Management Association recognized Shipley among the platinum level recipients of its 2015 Sustainable Awards, given to fleet operators who implement programs to reduce congestion and improve air quality.

“There is some irony in a natural-gas-powered tanker truck delivering petroleum fuel, and I think it really underscores our commitment to experimenting with new technologies,” Sommer said.

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Roger DuPuis

Roger DuPuis

Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, health care, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at rdupuis@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @rogerdupuis2.

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