R.I.’s First Propane Autogas Station in the Works

By JOHN PANTALONE/ecoRI News contributor

A  family-owned business for nearly a century in South Kingstown, Buckley Heating & Cooling has evolved through four generations and, like most fuel-delivery companies, faces even more changes. It will soon take another step forward, when it opens Rhode Island’s first public propane autogas filling station later this year.

“This is a big investment for us, but we believe it will pay off,” said general manager Matt Buckley, part of that fourth generation of the family. “It provides savings to people and reduces emissions.”

Buckley hopes to open the station on Knight Street in Warwick this spring. The state permitting process is under way, and he hopes to have approval for the project soon.

Buckley has already converted four trucks in its oil and propane delivery fleet to run on propane autogas, and he said the company plans to continue that trend. “We converted because we needed to save on gas for our fleet,” he said. “It just makes sense.”

He’s counting on other businesses with delivery fleets to make similar conversions or buy vehicles outfitted for propane autogas, to run more efficient, cleaner and less-costly operations. He said you can see more impetus nationwide for alternative fuels for transportation, and propane autogas fits into that picture.

“It’s domestically produced and a significant export product,” Buckley said. “You can convert gasoline engines to run on propane without great difficulty. Propane is well positioned for the transition to cleaner fuels.”

There are, however, obstacles. “The biggest issues are educating the public and developing the infrastructure,” Buckley said. “Just like with electric vehicles, people worry about availability on long trips.”

He said smart-phone applications have been developed to help drivers locate fueling stations. “Other parts of the country do much more with this, especially the Midwest,” Buckley said. “Taxi fleets and police cruisers have been converted in many places.”

Pricing is an advantage for propane over gasoline, and though infrastructure issues and the cold weather have pushed prices up this winter, Buckley said it’s still cheaper than gasoline, with an average price between $2.50 and $2.60 a gallon retail.

As with other efforts to inspire alternatives to gasoline and diesel for transportation, Buckley has his eye on private commercial trucking fleets, municipal fleets and school bus companies.

“It’s easier to deal with small private fleets, but I think you’ll see more movement as cities and towns try to find ways to save money,” he said.

Large landscape companies have started converting to propane autogas, Buckley said, and the fuel is suited for forklifts in warehouses and shipping sites. Buckley said he sees a similarity in this evolution to one that occurred much earlier with his family’s business.

“Oil was our business for many years, but customers were telling us they wanted propane,” he said. “We added that and it has become a major part of our business. The cost is more stable than with oil markets. Builders have begun pushing people to install propane heating systems because of lower cost, so there is greater awareness of the advantages.”

Editor's note: John Pantalone is assistant professor and chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media. This story was produced as part of a Department of Journalism project focused on environmental and energy reporting.