06 April 2012: In Germany, alternative fuels are working


I spent some time with my German friend, Dr. Manfred Keune, a retired professor emeritus of German Studies from Penn State, who has contacts and does business with German companies.

With his assistance I was able to see what options and choices our German friends are making in buying and using alternative fuel vehicles, particularly vehicles using non gasoline fuels for transportation. This conversation will be of interest to those contemplating the possibility of using natural gas or other gas fuel as a transportation fuel in central Pennsylvania.

While our choices are limited today, as only Dix Honda seems to be offering a factory ready natural gas vehicle, a version of the Honda Civic, I believe other manufacturers will soon be offering alternative fuel vehicles. Indeed, Dodge has indicated it will be building natural gas Dodge Ram pickup trucks later this summer. – Dan Nestlerode


For Marcellus Business Central

The inquiry at hand has the purpose to ascertain why propane gas as a fuel in a fleet of automobiles was and is attractive to a German company like Klöcker Brothers.

Klöcker Brothers is a traditional, medium-sized German company and a global player, with its head office in Borken, Westphalia, Germany (close to the Dutch border), with a manufacturing facility in Bandung, Indonesia. The company uses industrial mechatronics as a method for the manufacture of accessories for weaving machines. They can be checked out on the web at www.kloecker-gmbh.com.

The managing director of the company, Dr. Christoph Schwemmlein, a good friend of mine who attended Juniata College in Huntingdon and is now a member of the board of Trustees at Juniata College, gave me the chance to get to know a propane and gasoline driven vehicle during my stay in Germany two years ago.

I drove the vehicle, a General Motors-SUV, over a period of two weeks throughout Germany on the autobahn as well as in city traffic. During that experience, where I had the choice of propane or gasoline as fuel, I chose to use propane. I did so because it was considerably cheaper. Filling the gas tank, I found, was not inconvenient for me after a brief introduction into the practice by an attendant. He simply showed me how to fill the separate tank for propan by using an adaptor. After that, self-service at a designated „pump“ at certain gas stations was not a problem. Considering the usual criteria for the driving performance of an automobile like the one I drove, I would assess the performance was very satisfactory.

On the basis of a number of questions and answers it might be useful to consider the decisions that a German company like Klöcker made in purchasing several G-vehicles that can use propans (C3H8 to the chemists) as well as gasoline for fuel. Americans who are contemplating a similar shift to compressed natural gas might gain some insight into advantages and disadvantages of using alternative fuels in personal vehicles or truck fleets in the U.S.

The answers to the questions posed were given by Dr. Christoph Schwemmlein, managing director of Klöcker Brothers.

As far as the sources for alternative fuels are concerned in Germany, it is interesting to note that Germany is the biggest producer of obiosgas (methane) in Europe. Drilling has also emerged as a source as well as importation of natural gas from Russia. Propane (one alternative fuel) filling stations are widely available in Germany.

At present it is Mercedes, Fiat, Opel, GM and Citroen that offer different models of propane driven car. In the U.S., compressed natural gas is growing as an offer to serve customers with methane (CH4) now and in the future. There is general agreement that natural gas among other alternative fuels is clean, abundant, affordable, safe and economical.

What led to the decision made by Klöcker to purchase the kind of vehicles (GM) necessary to have propane as a fuel?

The basis for the decision to buy GM vehicles were determined by the fact that GM offered dual fuel (gasoline and propan-) driven vehicles direct from the factory which did not necessitate any modifications. GM also offered a warranty of three years for the whole vehicle without limitations in miles. The risk of the consequences of a breakdown in the new propane-technology was thus minimized. Also, the exchange rate was advantageous (at 20.000 Euro) per vehicle as well as a relatively short delivery time of six to eight weeks. Unlike in the United Sates, cars are ordered in Germany whereas Americans are used to buying off of the dealers’ inventory for immediate delivery.

What was the role of savings on fuel costs, purchase price of the cars and the availability of vehicles in your decision? Why GM?

Next to the favorable cost of the vehicle’s acquisition from GM, these cars can be driven with gasoline as well as propane. This increases the driving range and reduces the energy costs by 40 - 45 percent, since the price of propane is approximately half the price of gasoline in Germany. The use of propane to run the vehicle, in a direct comparison to gasoline, is 10 percent) less efficient.

What did the German government do to encourage these decisions? Subsidies, acknowledgement of environmental policies of the company, etc. How important were environmental and fiscal considerations. Are there other factors?

The German government subsidizes the sale of propane by a reduced tax rate until the year 2018. While the tax for gasoline, in the meantime, amounts to approximately € 1.00 (which is about $ 1.30 in U.S. dollar) per liter (1gallon=4.546 liter) plus value added tax, the tax on propane is only a fraction of that cost, € 0.10 ($ .13 U.S.) plus value added tax. Another incentive for the acquisition of these vehicles for Klöcker was the Environmental Certification according to DIN EN ISO 1400 (an important German distinction, Deutschland Industrial Norm, a quality standard, since the lower emission rate of vehicles propelled by propans or other alternative fuels makes Klöcker eligible for a number of (environmental credit) which improved the environmental emission balance of the company.

Where there any disadvantages that emerged in the decision-making process in the beginning which were overcome in time?

There have not been any disadvantages caused by this decision, since GM also took over the total warranty for the functionality of the vehicle, inclusive the propans installation for three years. After having been driven 300,000 kilometers (app. 188,000 miles the vehicles have run without any problems.

How has the dual function of fuel storage in the vehicles worked out over time? What was the ratio of utilization for gasoline and propane in the use of these vehicles, and what were some of the determinants for when either would be used? Is filling up with propane less convenient than filling up with gasoline?

Usually the gasoline tanks of the vehicles are filled since the start of the vehicles is usually done with gasoline, and after a few hundred meters there is an automatic shift to the uses of propane. There are technical reasons for this. Basically, it is advantageous to have a ratio of 1:20 in the use of gasoline and propane. Since gasoline creates a higher operating temperature, which has drawbacks for the lubrication system of valves, this ratio is recommended.

Ultimately, filling up with propane was somewhat more complicated than filling up with gasoline, since safety regulations must be followed, which necessitates brass adaptors for nozzles to prevent discharges of sparks. Instructions to learn this practice take about 5 minutes after which these inconveniences are overcome. The actual filling up with propane is faster than filling up with gasoline.

What are some of the differences concerning maintenance (cost and frequency, etc.) of vehicles using gasoline and propane? Can Diesel engines compete with engines using propane?

Up to now we have not seen any additional costs in the maintenance between propane and gasoline- driven vehicles.

In our opinion, diesel vehicles cannot compete with propane driven vehicles since diesel is subject to higher taxes and also pollutes more, and, judging from the design conception of the motor (considerably higher compression), diesel vehicles are simply more expensive than propane and gasoline driven vehicles.

Is the general German public buying cars that run on propane (exclusively or dual), and how is the supply and availability facilitated? Are there tax-advantages or other encouragements on the part of the government?

A variety of propane-driven vehicles are available for the public in Germany. Advantages in maintenance exist on the basis of the lower prices for propane which go hand in hand with studies and results concerning durability and the fact that diesel vehicles are efficient but extremely expensive with a high demand for maintenance and turbo boost desire needed for overcoming a lag in acceleration. Turbo boosters are maintenance intensive.

Are there questions and perceptions concerning the performance of vehicles running on propane? Is power or other limitations such as availability, speed, loading capacity, etc. an issue? Is it more “convenient“ to have a vehicle that simply runs on gasoline – in the minds of some people?

Next to the subsidies for propane there are no tax-advantages for cars as such. Technically speaking, there are no big differences between vehicles driven by propane or gasoline. However, extensive laboratory tests have shown that propane-driven motors generate five percent less efficiency than those driven by gasoline. Since engines are overall efficient without exception, the loss of 10-15 horsepower is hardly noticed.

If you were a German consultant for an American company, which is considering the use of propane gas-driven vehicles: what would you tell your customer?

We would advise our clients, based on the above arguments, to select dual fuel vehicles since the performance is economically advantageous and there are no comparative limitations in everyday utilization.

Are there any other factors that seem important for you to be considered in the decision to use propane as a fuel source for automobiles and trucks?

In the end the balance between emissions and the advantage of price were in the foreground of our decision.

So there you have it. In Germany, where both fuels are widely available, propane is preferred because of cost advantages and comparable engine performance.

I suspect it won’t be a long-time before alternatively fueled vehicles are zooming around central Pennsylvania. Propane, of course, can be easily obtained from wet natural gas wells, which are common in our western Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale deposits.

Source: Marcellus Business Central, a Publication of Pennsylvania Business Central, April 6th, 2012