Renewable propane may be the key to the industry’s future

Posted: November 12, 2018

November 12, 2018 By

On a molecular level, renewable propane is identical to the traditional propane used by retailers and consumers across the country. But on a national scale, renewable propane is completely different and pushes the propane industry and its fuel into the energy conversation for the future.

About four years ago, Joy Alafia, president of the Western Propane Gas Association (WPGA), reviewed the WPGA’s strategic plan to see what was happening in the environment, the marketplace and legislatively. “It was painfully obvious” that if propane wanted to compete in western states in the future, the fuel needed to become cleaner, Alafia says.

In several states, including California, zero carbon or close to zero carbon emitting fuels are quickly becoming the norm. Without a renewable component, propane is excluded from that list.

“From a technical standpoint, renewable propane is a byproduct of the renewable diesel process,” Alafia says. “It is about sustainability, so being able to have a propane fuel that is generated from a renewable source. In the case of renewable propane, you are looking at propane being produced from either vegetable oil or beef fat.”

Renewable propane can be used in the same applications as conventional propane because they both have the same molecular structure. The difference lies in renewable propane’s production sources: vegetable oils, animal oils and other triglycerides.

“There is a kind of binary discussion for energy,” Alafia says. “You are either dirty or clean. Clean is defined as being renewable and if you are not renewable, you are kind of lumped into the other basket.”

To stay out of the “other basket” and join the future energy conversation, the propane industry is in the beginning stages of the renewable investigation.

Renewable propane is a co-product from a renewable hydrocarbon diesel (RHD) production process. RHD is a hydrocarbon product – hydrocarbons are chemical compounds composed only of hydrogen and carbon – like any of those that are the chief components of petroleum and natural gas. The difference is that RHD is made from biological oils and fats (triglycerides) through the process of hydrotreating. The combination of hydrogen and triglycerides produces renewable propane and paraffinic hydrocarbons – paraffins are waxy solids consisting of a mixture of saturated hydrocarbons – which are then isomerized to create a fungible diesel fuel that is separated from the lighter products, including renewable propane, by distillation.

According to Leonard, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is pushing for all heavy-duty vehicles to be “zero emissions wherever feasible,” and “near zero emissions (NZE) using renewable fuel” everywhere else. Heavy-duty propane engines that meet “near zero emissions” levels of NOx (0.02 grams per brake-horsepower hour), which is an advancement toward CARB’s plan for the transportation sector, are now available for medium-duty trucks, school buses and shuttle buses, Leonard explains. Renewable propane is now becoming available in small volumes for demonstration programs involving these NZE propane vehicles. However, it is not yet available in significant volumes to prompt a transition over from fossil-produced propane.

“In order to keep playing in California in the long-term transportation sector, you must get to renewable propane,” Leonard explains. Larry Osgood of Consulting Solutions argues for more propane use both in transportation and other, more traditional applications.

“We get much better emissions results across the board using propane,” Osgood says. “I believe we should be using more propane and not less.”

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