Propane in America: Independence for People and for a Nation
The economic impact of propane on the United States
Propane users in America may not know it, but they are declaring independence from dirty air and imported energy as they support the production of a low-carbon, clean-burning fuel that provides critical energy to residential, commercial, agricultural, and industrial customers in all 50 states.
It should come as no surprise then that propane seems to attract those with an independent streak. The U.S. propane industry, for instance, is composed overwhelmingly of small, independent businesses working to meet the unique energy needs of American communities. Those businesses often operate in parts of the country left behind from recent economic gains and provide technical training to their employees, allowing them to develop skill sets that make them more independent and self-reliant.
Propane Uses in the US
As a domestically produced alternative fuel, propane supports jobs and investment in the American economy from production to consumption. Propane production has more than doubled in the last decade. That bump in the propane supply has led to more exports which help reduce our trade deficits with other countries. In fact, U.S. exports of propane and propylene (which is made primarily from propane) have been soaring in recent years as production of natural gas from shale deposits, often called shale gas, has skyrocketed. Natural gas processing is the primary source of propane though some still comes from the refining of crude oil.
Exports which never exceeded 91,000 barrels per day in 2010 are now averaging almost 1.1 million barrels per day in 2020 through October 2, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s more than a 1,200 percent increase in 10 years.
Alongside this growth in production have come expanded opportunities for propane industry careers in production, transportation and retail sales and delivery. A 2018 study by the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) showed that the U.S. propane industry employed more than 57,000 American workers and generated $46 billion in direct economic impact annually. Furthermore, these jobs can never be outsourced, and that means many working men and women find stable employment within the propane industry. Propane has an economic footprint in every state and congressional district in the country.
Nationally, propane is used in 50 million American homes; 11.9 million households rely on propane as their energy source for space or water heating. The industry serves 1.1 million commercial accounts, 505,000 agricultural accounts, and 185,000 industrial accounts. Propane powers large swaths of the United States economy and provides clean, reliable energy so a variety of market sectors can flourish.
Propane and Agriculture
Many farmers, businesses operating beyond the natural gas infrastructure, and those managing vehicle fleets depend on propane for clean, affordable fuel.
For instance, farmers use propane heat to dry their harvests as farmers are often beyond the reach of natural gas pipelines. Drying reduces crop loss and allows safe storage for their commodities while they wait for favorable market prices. By drying crops farmers avoid losses due to mold. Heated drying—as opposed to natural air drying—can provide quicker and more reliable results, especially in moist weather.
Farmers also use propane to power tractors, irrigation systems, and other farm equipment. To lessen the use of chemical herbicides, some farms use propane flame weed control which leaves no toxic residue.
Industries located in areas without natural gas pipelines often rely on propane gas to provide efficient, on-site power for energy-intensive applications, including furnaces, boilers, engines, and cooking and refrigeration equipment.
In the mining industry remote locations are the norm. Energy supplies typically have to be brought to the site. Propane offers a cleaner, more environmentally safe, and often cheaper alternative to diesel for powering generators and vehicles. In cold climates underground mines usually require heated air ventilation, often powered by propane.
Remote locations are also a feature of the oil and gas industry which produces propane in the first place. Propane can return the favor by helping to power the extraction of additional oil and natural gas (which contains propane) through the use of “
ropane-powered drilling rigs, flaring assistance burners, oil and water heaters, pumps, compressors, forklifts, propane-fueled vehicles, and heaters and cook stoves for worker housing units.” Fuel savings can be 20 to 30 percent over diesel-powered equipment.
Lumber and firewood are two more products associated with remote locations. Lumber is often dried using propane-fired heaters as is firewood.
Of course, there are many commercial establishments including hotels and restaurants located beyond the reach of natural gas infrastructure that rely on propane for space heating, hot water and cooking. Truly remote establishments may use propane to power generators for electricity.
One major industrial application found right in the city is the propane-powered forklift. Those forklifts keep warehouse air far cleaner than diesel-powered forklifts while helping to keep the supply chain throughout the United States moving.
Forklifts are just one example of the use of propane autogas or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as transportation fuel. Autogas allows fleet vehicles, such as school buses, to lower greenhouse gas emissions while reducing operating costs. School districts save money and can redirect transportation funds back to the classroom. An example in Washington state demonstrates the economic benefits of switching school fleets to propane vehicles:
Oak Harbor Public Schools estimates that its fleet of propane school buses saves the district around $35,000 in fuel costs annually compared to their conventional fuel counterparts. In addition, vehicle maintenance and service time for the propane buses has been cut in half, leaving the school district with an additional $700 or more in savings per propane bus each year.
Propane is also showing that it works well in hybrid electric vehicles, and that aids fleet owners in meeting their emission targets while bringing down maintenance costs. Propane-burning engines typically require less maintenance than their diesel- and gasoline-burning counterparts. In addition, propane-electric vehicles are one more way in which propane use can help reduce smog.
Propane and the Environment
Speaking of smog, just as important as what propane is contributing to America and its people is what it is NOT contributing: noxious emissions. Vehicles that normally run on diesel fuel such as school buses release up to 96 percent less nitrogen oxides when fueled by propane instead. Nitrogen oxides are harmful to the human respiratory tract and can also form acid rain in the environment. Beyond this, propane-powered vehicles also release up to 13 percent less carbon dioxide, the major component of greenhouse gas emissions, than comparable diesel-powered vehicles.
The combination of a low-carbon, clean-burning fuel that powers our economy while providing employment and reducing our trade deficit is a win-win-win for the people of America and the businesses they work for. Propane is demonstrating that it is an important part of a winning strategy for fueling America’s future.