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Is LPG coming back?

by David Levy 17/09/12

Take a glance across petrol station forecourts and note the number of customers filling by only five or ten euro’s worth of fuel in an attempt to save weight and increase precious miles per gallon. Of course this is not simply an Irish problem and the fuel crises has been felt acutely all across Europe. However, in a country as de-centralised as Ireland where public transportation is still negligible in most rural areas, the effects of souring high fuel prices have the potential to be extremely damaging to the social and economical environment of the country.

As history has shown, economic crises invariably lead to opportunities in sometimes unlikely places. Some readers recalling previous fuel shortages of the 1970’s and 1980’s may also remember the first ill-fated venture of Liquid Petroleum Gas in the Irish market. This failed enterprise marked the first serious experimentation with alternative fuel in Ireland. More recently, bio-ethanol or ‘bio-fuel’ was regarded as the next major alternative fuel with car manufacturers such as Volvo and Saab especially keen to embrace the ‘dual-fuel’ engine. lpg

Unfortunately the viability of bio-ethanol powered cars has been well and truly vanquished thanks to the government’s decision to end the attractive tax rebate, thereby making bio-fuel more expensive to purchase than either petrol or diesel. However, with no end in sight to the rising cost of fuel and rumours of worse to come it seems that Liquid Petroleum Gas may be about to make a surprising and possibly far more successful return to the Irish market.
At present the product remains scarce on forecourts in the Republic but this has been offset by a sudden re-emergence of conversion specialists in several parts of the country. AutoGasIreland (www.autogasireland.ie) is one such business hoping to benefit from a new wave of LPG enthusiasm, having just opened a new depot on the outskirts of Cork City. CarsIreland.ie spoke to Sebastian Kita of AutoGasIreland, about the potential benefits of LPG over petrol and the future of Autogas in terms of providing a real and viable fuel alternative for the beleaguered Irish motorist.

Most four-cylinder vehicles are capable of being converted to LPG for around one thousand euro. The process itself involves equipping the vehicle with a separate fuelling system with its own LPG tank, ECU, injectors and piping. This sounds complicated but, according to Sebastian, ‘the entire procedure can be completed in one day. From there, our customers can simply have to return the vehicle for an annual service which costs just fifty euro’. Modern conversions enable the vehicle to become ‘dual-fuel’, so that drivers can switch between LPG and petrol at the flick of a switch. This is a particularly important feature in Ireland where the Autogas infrastructure is not yet as advanced as in most other European countries.

Indeed, Sebastian is also hoping that the Irish government will follow the lead of their European neighbours in encouraging the use of LPG in Ireland. As a ‘green’ energy – LPG produces far less emissions than either petrol or diesel – EU directives have encouraged some European countries to offer tax incentives for LPG driven vehicles. In France for example, motorists are offered grants of up to 2000 euro for converting cars that are under three years old. The Belgian government also applies a zero rate of excise duty on Autogas. Conversion specialists in Ireland are hoping that with proposed amendments to the Irish CO2 and cc based taxation system expected in the next budget, Irish customers could also benefit from a tax rebate for Autogas vehicles.

Many potential customers in Ireland may be put off by memories of the ungainly and sometimes unreliable tanks that were fitted to vehicles in the 1980’s. However, the modern LPG tank is remarkably well designed and most are able fit directly into the vehicles spare wheel compartment. LPG distributers are especially keen to emphasise the importance of reliability and safety as selling points. Sebastian Kita states that ‘each LPG conversion is guaranteed for two years. Quite contrary to popular opinion, LPG is also extremely safe and actually safer than petrol in some respects. In the event of a leak, the gas evaporates in the air far more quickly.’

Those who had their fingers burnt by Autogas in the 1980’s and bio-fuel in the 2000’s may be wary of the second coming of LPG and rightly so. But while Ireland’s misadventures with alternative fuel came to a shuddering halt during the Celtic Tiger years the rest of the world continued to develop and utilise LPG as an alternative fuel. Almost the entire taxi fleet of Hong Kong and Australia are LPG-driven and at present it is by far the most popular alternative fuel worldwide, operating thirteen million vehicles. The environmental advantages of LPG are numerous and extremely important in terms of promoting the fuel. But for Sebastian Kita, as for most Irish consumers, there remains one distinct selling point: ‘The most important thing to me about Gas-power and without doubt the biggest selling point for the customer is the price. We sell LPG at our base on the Tramore Road for 79 cent a litre. At present a client switching from petrol to LPG can stand to recoup nearly a euro a litre every time they fill up. I believe in this. I believe this is the future. ‘

It remains to be seen whether the Irish government will accede to pressure from the EU and introduce tax-breaks for dual-fuel LPG driven cars. There also needs to be a more enlighted approach from insurance companies, many of which have little or no knowledge of LPG and the excellent safety record of the product. Nevertheless, with increasing pressure being heaped upon motorists via petrol and diesel price hikes, not to mention extortionate motor tax rates and VRT, alternative fuel is no longer a fanciful notion in Ireland but an absolute necessity. It may well be time to go back to the future with LPG.