The Alt-Fuel Station Showdown: LPG vs. CNG

The alt-fuel station showdown: LPG vs. CNG. (image: U.S. Department of Energy)

The propane industry was rankled last week to discover that the gas was left out of legislation in the U.S. House that aims to put more alternative fuel vehicles on the road — as long as they run on natural gas. The so-called NAT GAS bill (HR 1380) offers a list of incentives to put more compressed natural gas (CNG) cars on the road plus the infrastructure to support them. But it makes no mention of propane.

The bill amounts to Washington’s anointing the country’s next alt-fuel, voices within the industry argued, rather than letting the marketplace decide. Propane has a similar resume to natural gas: Lower toxic emissions and plentiful supplies in North America. And in terms of national reach, propane offered a much larger network of fueling stations. “The propane autogas refueling infrastructure is significantly cheaper and more available than natural gas,” the National Propane Gas Association wrote in a press release.

But just how much more available? It was time to run the numbers from the Department of Energy and see. Nationwide, there are 2,540 LPG fueling stations open to the public, with about a fifth of those in Texas. Meanwhile, there are 382 compressed natural gas stations open to the public, with about a third of those located in California.

Though natural gas still has one edge over propane: The Honda Civic GX, a light-duty CNG vehicle, is available for sale here. But no light-duty LPG vehicles are available yet.

(UPDATE: The retailer Ferrelgas put out a statement this afternoon calling for neutrality in the legislation, too. “A natural gas refueling station costs up to 10 times more than a propane autogas station,” says Steve Wambold, the company president and CEO.)

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