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Running on propane

Taxi company, RMOW testing propane fuelled vehicles

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It wasn’t easy, but after a few months of work all of Whistler Resort Cabs’ minivans and six RMOW vehicles have been converted to gasoline/propane hybrids as part of a limited pilot project with Burnaby-based Autogas Propane.

There are two advantages, according to Autogas president Bob Good. The first is price. According to the cross-Canada weekly pump survey compiled by M.J. Ervin and Associates, the difference between average gas prices and propane prices for the week ending Dec. 14 was 17.7 cents per litre (propane gas in its liquid form). In Victoria the difference was 24.5 cents and in Kamloops 27.5 cents.

Although propane doesn’t go as far, it’s still considered more economical than gas.

The second reason is the environment. Propane is considered a clean burning gas, producing less carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides and particulate than gasoline for every British Thermal Unit burned.

"The reason we wanted to do (the pilot project) in Whistler is that we’re very much involved in wanting to get the town on alternate fuels," said Good. "We’re also working on some stuff with bio-diesels, too, but by 2010 we’re trying to develop as much in the way of alternate fuels as we can. And what better place to try it than Whistler?"

A lot of the taxis in the Vancouver area converted to propane in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but most gradually shifted back to gas over the next 10 years as the fuel efficiency of vehicles improved and the financial benefits of propane lessened.

Now, with a more efficient conversion technology available, propane is once again more cost-effective than gasoline. In addition, gas prices have been fluctuating and reaching new highs in recent years, while propane prices have been more stable.

The conversion should have taken a month, but there were a few delays because of the availability of propane gas tanks to fit on the vehicles. The pumping station has been set up in Nesters, with the municipality and Whistler Resort Cabs using a card key system to access the Autogas facility.

"The biggest problem was getting hold of the tanks, so it dragged out longer than I would have liked," said Good. "It’s now working and everything I’ve heard so far is positive. The other cab company in town is interested, and they want to know when they can get their cabs converted as well.

Centra Gas, which supplies propane to Whistler businesses and residences, has applied to the B.C. Utilities Commission to run a natural gas line from Squamish to Whistler, replacing the existing propane facility. Good says that won’t change their plans for Whistler, and the company would continue to offer propane to their customers if and when Centra’s change-over to natural gas takes place.

"That won’t really change anything with our vehicle conversions. You can convert your car to natural gas as well, but right now the cost of the infrastructure is almost prohibitive and the range for vehicles on natural gas is very limited. We’re trying to service the corridor so people can run to Vancouver and back (to Whistler) on a tank full of gas – you can’t do that very well with natural gas, but you can with propane," said Good.

"Another difference is that there is a strong infrastructure of (propane) dispensing units in place with propane, and for natural gas there are only six or seven in the whole of B.C."

The decision to bring Autogas to Whistler came about when Whistler Resort Cabs started looking for a company that could convert their fleet of vehicles as well as offer propane filling services.

Michael Hutchinson of Resort Cabs said the details of their project with Autogas are confidential, but said it was the company’s intention from the beginning to convert their 15-vehicle fleet to gasoline/propane.

"This was an initiative we put together with Autogas. We wanted to go straight to propane when we opened this summer and this was always part of our original plan," he said.

"One thing about Whistler is that it’s an environmentally friendly community, and we thought that was an important aspect when starting a new company up. The economy (of propane) was a factor obviously, but it was the environmental side of it that pushed the agenda… part of the overall strategy to bring something positive to the ride."

The new conversion system retains a regular gas tank, and regular fuel is used to start the engine. After a few minutes, once the engine warms up, the car switches automatically to propane, which is stored in a tank under the vehicle. The system doesn’t take up any space in the vehicle Hutchinson says.

"It’s been good so far. For our drivers it’s convenient to be able to refuel at Nesters because of the central location. There’s no downside whatsoever."

The municipality recently purchased a gasoline-electric hybrid truck, but also converted six vehicles to propane, including pickup trucks, small pickup trucks, a one-tonne truck and a 13-passenger van. The RMOW will assess the economy and operation of the system over the next few months before making a decision whether to convert more vehicles to propane.

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