ELLSWORTH, Maine — A local company has opened Maine’s first public refueling station for propane-powered vehicles.
R.H. Foster, located on High Street in Ellsworth, unveiled the dispenser on Monday, with plans to install two more stations, in Hampden and Machias, in the coming months.
Propane is the third-most common automotive fuel in the country, but still lags far behind the more common gasoline and diesel. Roy Willis, president and CEO of Propane Education and Research Council, based in Washington, D.C., was on hand in Ellsworth on Monday. He said best estimates indicate there are only about 300,000 propane-powered vehicles on the road in the U.S. He did not know how many might be in Maine.
But with the volatility in gasoline prices and consumers looking for ever-greener fuel alternatives, proponents of propane — referred to in its automotive incarnation as “autogas” — say the market is poised to grow.
According to the National Propane Gas Association, autogas releases 12 percent less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than does gasoline, 20 percent less nitrogen oxide and 60 percent less carbon monoxide. It also releases 80 percent less particulate smog than diesel.
But alternative energy is always a chicken-egg question: Will consumers switch to new energy sources once the infrastructure is in place, or will demand for alternatives create the push for infrastructure investments?
R.H. Foster is placing its bet on propane, saying that the infrastructure it’s building in Down East Maine — and a concerted effort to educate the public on propane’s merits — will boost demand.
The company has already converted a portion of its own fleet to propane, and said it will seek to educate municipalities, school districts and fleet companies about the environmental and cost savings associated with autogas.
“I can never guess how fast consumers will make the transition,” said Robert Tracy, executive vice president of R.H. Foster. “People have been driving diesel and gas their whole lives. … But we believe the customer is interested in clean energy and in lower price.”
The station in Ellsworth is currently dispensing propane gas at a price of $2.14 per gallon, about $1.50 cheaper than gasoline at local gas stations.
Hancock County is no stranger to propane-powered vehicles. The immensely popular Island Explorer service — which operates a fleet of free buses around Mount Desert Island, Acadia National Park, Trenton and Ellsworth — has run on propane since its inception in 2009.
And several school districts, including Scarborough, Auburn and SAD 6, have converted some or all of their school bus fleets to propane, according to Rodney Waugh of O’Connor Bus Sales in Augusta.
Waugh said that in total there are about 20 propane-powered public school buses in the state, and he expects demand to rise. Those buses, and the Island Explorers, refuel at their own facilities.
At least for the immediate future, insiders predict that propane will continue being an option embraced by fleet companies and municipalities. Tracy said he doesn’t think soccer moms or single-car families will switch to propane anytime soon.
Still, the arrival of retail autogas stations in Maine already is having off-road ripple effects. Joe Moore is an automotive instructor at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. He was in Ellsworth to check out the station and the handful of propane-powered vehicles on display.
“This is really only a fleet market at the moment, but we have to stay on top of it,” he said. “We’re already training students on propane installations.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.