The Platform


U.S. ports are shifting more of their energy consumption to propane, and it’s a trend which does not seem to be on the decline.

Those using propane embrace this fuel because it has three unimpeachable virtues: it’s affordable, clean, and produced entirely in the United States. Propane is commonly used in 48 million households for space and water heating, cooking, and as an engine fuel. It’s also widely used on farms (approximately 800,000 of them), and in more than 500,000 forklifts.

Ports are currently using propane in a wide variety of settings. The long list of applications includes powering forklifts, powering port tractors, powering backup power generation, powering cold ironing, providing barge power, and providing propulsion power for large carriers of LPG.

In the near future, ports will be able to shift to propane in many of the applications where diesel is being used today. The long list of settings where propane will be extending its reach includes reach stackers, port-to-rail equipment, empty container handlers, rubber tyre gantry cranes, and drayage trucks.

Why exactly are ports making the transition from dirty fuels to clean fuels such as propane? The most basic answer is the simple one: propane helps improve air quality. When measured by scientists, propane does better than gasoline on emissions: 12% less with terminal tractors, and also with light-duty vehicles. Propane is being used to fuel resilient, low-nitrogen oxides generators for backup and in prime power for cold ironing, charging, and other large industrial applications.

One key factor that makes propane attractive is that it also comes from organic and renewable sources. It’s non-toxic and does not contaminate air, soil, or water resources. There are a host of environmental benefits which are top-of-mind for ports. Three of the most important are lower particulate matter, lower nitrogen oxide emissions, and lower sulfur oxide emissions. Forklifts powered by propane emit 76% less sulfur oxides than the electricity drawn from the grid. With the onslaught of climate change, the choice has become clearer, especially when the facts about propane emissions are compared to the total emissions generated by diesel, gasoline, or by electric power that’s generated from conventional power plants.

Sensing the pressing need for change at ports, the Environmental Protection Agency published “The National Port Strategy Assessment” in 2016. The document is important because it was hyper-focused on the goal that the Environmental Protection Agency described in the report’s subtitle: “Reducing Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases at U.S. Ports”.

By far, the biggest challenge described in that report is the exact same one in which the Environmental Protection Agency is still focused on today: “current and future emission trends from diesel engines in port areas.”

Ports are also making the transition because of the very real economic benefits. First, propane is consistently less expensive than diesel, especially when the comparison is made in a way that calculates the total costs associated with maintaining diesel-fueled equipment. The up-front capital costs associated with electric vehicles at a port can be as much as $200,000 more per vehicle. Keep in mind the fact that, in the warehouse districts which surround a port, the average port tractor fleet is only three vehicles. Electric is cost prohibitive for an independent warehouse. The cost difference here means that ports adopting propane solutions find that they can afford to replace more of their fleet and, at the same time, achieve their carbon reduction goals faster.

The bottom line is this: When compared with gasoline-powered vehicles or diesel-powered vehicles, propane delivers a lower total cost of ownership. This is made possible by a menu of advantages: a low-cost refueling infrastructure, competitive upfront costs, low maintenance costs, and low operating costs.

On-site refueling at ports is an expensive business. The good news is that propane typically costs less than conventional and other alternative fuels. Construction cost estimates for a 1,000 to 3,000 gallon propane tank station are $30,000 to $50,000. This budget includes crash posts, seismic engineering, and installation. An 18,000 to 30,000 gallon propane tank station costs $100,000 to $150,000. This kind of infrastructure budget is considerably less than other alternative fuel sources. Plus, propane has one other advantage: a minimal footprint within a facility, with no utility service upgrades.

Significant new funds for ports were included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law which President Biden signed on November 15, 2021.

The infrastructure law authorizes more than $1.2 trillion to improve U.S. infrastructure. The law also creates an unprecedented opportunity for propane and other low-emission fuels to power on-road and off-road fleets that have historically operated on diesel and gasoline.

The law includes over $9 billion in funding for refueling infrastructure and clean vehicles, including propane, which is identified in the infrastructure law as an emerging alternative fuel. Today, about 70,000 on-road vehicles, including 22,000 school buses, run on propane. Propane reduces more emissions per dollar than any other fuel and is a cost-effective solution compared with electric vehicles.

“The inclusion of propane is a major win for communities across the country, as fleet owners will have multiple alternative fuel options for reducing emissions and transforming their fleets for the better,” says Tucker Perkins of the Propane Education and Research Council. “With propane, fleets can accelerate decarbonization quickly and affordably.”

Propane’s simple, affordable, ready-now equipment ensures energy equity by cutting carbon emissions without requiring trillions of dollars needed to modernize an aging electrical grid and retrofit millions of homes and businesses. The burden for those upgrades would inevitably fall on those who can least afford it. Propane produces 43% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than using an equivalent amount of electricity generated from the U.S. grid.

Real solutions are now at work in Southern California. Ocean-going vessels (OGVs) such as container ships, bulk carriers, tankers, and roll-on/roll-off ships used to transport vehicles require electricity to power a host of items. According to Greg Alexander with AERAS Technologies, “in past years, this power was produced with auxiliary engines and boilers that operated when a ship’s propulsion engines were turned off. These auxiliary engines and boilers were generally not outfitted with any– or very minimal– pollution remediation technologies, and were a key source of air pollution in port areas.”

While advocating for systemic change over 4 decades, Gordon Feller has been called upon to help leaders running some of the world’s major organizations: World Bank, UN, World Economic Forum, Lockheed, Apple, IBM, Ford, the national governments of Germany, Canada, US – to name a few. With 40 years in Silicon Valley, Feller’s 300+ published articles cover the full spectrum of energy/environment/technology issues, reporting from more than 40 countries. Obama/Biden appointee to Federal comm. on innovation; Global Fellow at The Smithsonian; Winner: Prime Minister Abe Fellowship, Japan.