fbpx

How Propane Fits Into the Green Equation – A Look At Propane’s Environmental Impact

The San Luis Obispo Tribune recently quoted a new study conducted by International Energy Agency saying that carbon emissions are expected to fall about 8% this year compared to last. This is due to the coronavirus pandemic. Places like Los Angeles and other large cities around the world are seeing a noticeable change in air quality since the start of shelter-at-home orders in March 2020. This is a result of entire industries and manufacturing plants halting and world citizens driving far less than before the outbreak. Experts warn this new and improved air quality is only temporary though.

Climate change is a topic concerning many scientists. Alarmists speculate that, globally, we could be in for serious repercussions if we do not turn around the damage claimed to be done by human activities. But, what if we could maintain and build upon the improved air quality we are experiencing? The study also states that demand for renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydropower will increase as life begins to slowly move back to normal. Propane is another clean energy source that can assist with improved air quality. Propane reduces greenhouse gas emissions – nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – when compared to gasoline and diesel. It powers vehicles around the world, producing fewer emissions than even electricity. It is used as a primary energy source for millions of American homes and it can couple with solar as a back up energy source.

What’s The Big Deal With Climate Change?

Some scientists claim that our earth is warming primarily due to increased use of fossil fuels. Others believe that a changing climate is due to natural causes, reoccurring over millennia and human activities have little to do with it. Whether the increase in global temperature is human induced, is the result of natural warming and cooling of the earth, or is a mixture of the two, it is important to recognize our part and do what we can to reduce emission of additional, unnecessary greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.

Greenhouse gases in our atmosphere can be useful, in the correct quantities. Methane, NOx, and CO2 can help trap heat and make Earth inhabitable for humans, animals, and plants. Too many greenhouse gases, however, can pollute our air, cause heat waves, droughts and floods, increase sea levels, and erode ecosystems.

Our climate is changing, however moving into an all-electric future is not sustainable. Propane is a clean fuel that, if incorporated into the energy mix of homes and businesses, can help lessen greenhouse gas emissions.

How Can Propane Help?

We have been taught to believe the incorrect notion that propane is a fossil fuel, albeit a clean one. In reality, propane is not only a clean fuel, it is the cleanest alternative to gasoline and diesel – yes, cleaner than electricity. What many do not factor when discussing carbon emissions is the full life cycle of alternative energies. This will be discussed below in a propane versus electricity comparison.

The 1990 Clean Air Act names propane as a clean fuel. Due to its lower carbon make up, propane can reduce emissions compared to gasoline and diesel. There are already 50 million American homes enjoying the environmental benefits of propane. Nearly eight million of those specifically for home heating purposes. There are over 12,000 propane powered school buses that, previous to the coronavirus pandemic, transported over 700,000 students to and from school each day in the United States. School districts have seen up to a 90% reduction of smog-causing pollutants when using propane.

  Propane Can Help Meet Zero Net Energy Standards

As California continues its efforts to clean up the air, some city decision makers have put in place mandates that all new residential buildings and all new commercial buildings be zero net energy (ZNE) ready by 2020 and 2030, respectively. ZNE means, in short, that the building is producing as much energy as it is consuming. Despite the ZNE codes being tough to meet, propane can help.  David Knight, founder of a Bay Area residential mechanical engineering firm, states that using propane for space heating, water heating, and power generation will help homes meet these regulations. These appliances coupled with solar panels and a back up battery system will move a home off the grid and meet the new building codes.

Solar panel installation costs have gone down significantly. Expenses associated with hooking up a new building to the electric grid, or even the natural gas lines, have spiked as more people look to options that will allow them to live off the grid. Since utilities won’t earn as much income from homes with solar panels, upfront costs to connect to the grid can run homeowners and builders upwards of $50,000. David Knight’s suggestion is inexpensive solar panels, a battery back up system, and a good back up generator. Propane powered back up generators are a reliable way to power your home in the event of a power outage. Even if you have a battery back up that is storing the excess energy your solar panels are producing, installing a propane powered back up generator will ensure your home stays fully functioning no matter what.

How Does Propane Compare to Electricity?

 

Looking at The Full Life Cycle – From Production to Use

When thinking about emissions and harmful particulates being released into the atmosphere, many believe that an all-electric future is our only option. However, it is important to consider that electricity is also not without its emissions. When looking at the full life cycle of electricity, we can see that it must come from somewhere. Not all electricity is generated by the sun and wind. We do still have some of this electricity produced by natural gas and coal-fired plants. Approximately 30% of California’s electricity is still produced by coal powered plants in other states. This is the source energy we must consider – how much energy is used to produce electricity. Likewise, even when electricity is produced by solar panels or wind turbines, those pieces of equipment had to have been manufactured and placed somewhere with some form of emissions and environmental impact.

Mining practices for lithium used to produce back up batteries requires up to half a million gallons of water per one ton of lithium. This causes great devastation to indigenous peoples of the drought-ridden, lithium producing countries in South America. Lithium production takes away their limited water supply for food production and uses it elsewhere. Although this form of production doesn’t use much energy, the growing demand for these batteries forces manufacturers to source raw materials from rock mines in China, increasing the amount of energy used in transportation by about three times.

Another consideration we must make revolves around the deforestation and habitat destruction that happens when building solar farms and wind turbines. In order to have enough solar and wind energy to properly power all of our needs, we’ve got to clear space. This means animal and plant species lose their homes or are taken into captivity where they cannot thrive. Being ‘green’ goes beyond whether there are tailpipe emissions and beyond how much energy is used to create more energy.

While propane is not without its own source energy use, we can see in the graphics below that propane emits fewer emissions as it travels from extraction to end use than electricity does. Additionally, because propane is a natural bi-product of natural gas extraction and refining, there is no need to cut down trees or displace native species in order to produce more propane.

Source: PERC

 

Propane Helps Reduce Emissions & Costs While Improving Efficiency

When we factor in the full production of all alternative energy, we see that propane can actually reduce the amount of emissions produced from residential and commercial energy use when compared to electricity.

When it comes to residential use, propane:

  1. Reduces CO2 emissions by 30% versus all-electric homes. This is when propane is used directly for space heating, water heating, cooking and clothes drying.
  2. Reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 50%.
  3. Retains 90% of its original energy by the time its delivered to the end user. Electricity only retains 30%.
  4. Makes a home three times more efficient compared to a non-gas energy AND propane appliances are two times more efficient than their non-gas counterparts

Source: usecaliforniapropane.com

Residential users can compare the cost of their electric use to what propane may cost them using the chart below. In the example provided, propane outweighs electricity in terms of cost by the month.

Propane doesn’t always seem more cost effective because often propane is billed not by the month but rather by the fill. It can be costly to fill up a propane tank, but consider that you are only paying that bulk payment possibly twice a year versus a year-round electric or natural gas bill. Additionally, Delta Liquid Energy offers a Level Payment Program and a Pre-Buy Program that both offer potentially discounted rates AND monthly payment options. This allows you to spread out the cost of your propane use. By doing so, you can see that there is potential to pay more for electricity than for propane.

Propane Versus Electricity as a Transportation Option

Propane can be used beyond residential use. It can be used to power fleet vehicles like school buses, shuttles, and box trucks. The benefits of using propane as a transportation fuel for fleets exceed that of any other alternative to gasoline or diesel. The emissions created by fleet vehicles contribute to the climate change conversation and propane is a viable, clean option for fleets.

The California Air Resourced Board (CARB) implemented the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) in 2011 to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions produced by vehicles. This program allows fleets utilizing low carbon fuel alternatives, like propane and electricity, to earn monetary credits if their fuel of choice is below a certain threshold. The threshold number is known as the Carbon Intensity Score (CI) and is different for each fuel. It is determined by looking at how many greenhouse gas emissions are produced by that fuel, from production through end use. Lower scores are given for increased vehicle technology and reduced fuel consumption. Within this program, propane receives a lower CI score than electricity and the lower a fuel’s CI, the better.

Not only does propane receive a better score than electricity in this program, it also is the lowest cost transportation fuel to implement for fleets.

  • Vehicles running on propane have a lower purchase price than electric vehicles.
  • Downtime for a propane vehicle is less than that of an electric vehicle.
  • Some fleet vehicles require up to five hours of charging time whereas a propane vehicle can refuel in roughly the same amount of time it would take to gas up your personal vehicle.
  • Charging infrastructure can be costly to implement but propane refueling equipment can be relatively cost effective. Additionally, in order to tap into the electrical grid and obtain enough power for a growing fleet, electric fleet owners must build their charging stations according to what they think their fleet will grow to in the future. With propane infrastructure, it can be scaled to the size of your fleet easily. This allows you to build what you need now and add on more in the future, reducing current costs.
Source: PERC

 

 How Can Propane Compliment Other Alternatives?

As was stated above, solar energy coupled with propane appliances can offer the same creature comforts we currently enjoy while allowing us to move off the grid and build ZNE homes. In this case study of a home built in Big Sur, California we see how propane and solar can work hand-in-hand. While battery storage to collect your excess solar generation is helpful, cooking and heating your home cannot be accomplished with this alone – we need propane back up power to keep all things in our home running at once.

Even Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla, admits in a 2017 article that he believes a solar economy is the “primary, but not exclusive, sustainable solution.” There are other forms of energy that are clean and can work together – propane is one of those options.

Reducing emissions, improving air quality, and combating climate change does not have a “one size fits all” solution. The pipe dream of powering our entire world, or even just the United States, on electricity generated by wind and solar alone is a myth. There are energy solutions, like propane, that can work in tandem with other clean sources to keep industries moving forward AND clean up our climate.

 

Additional Sources:

All infographics sourced from: The Propane Education and Research Council (PERC)

https://propane.com/for-my-business/residential-construction/building-a-zero-net-energy-home-with-propane/)

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lithium-batteries-environment-impact