warm thoughts

NOVEMBER – 5 THINGS THE PROPANE INDUSTRY NEEDS TO STOP DOING TODAY

Written on: November 13, 2023

By Steve Ahrens

Excuse the clickbait headline, but in this instance, I think the “5 things” teaser is warranted. Looking back over the past 20 years or so, it is reassuring to affirm that we’ve made great progress on so many fronts. Yet, in a few critical areas, we could do better. Here are my Top 5 things the industry should STOP doing, starting today:

1. Stop saying “fossil fuel.” Say “conventional fuel” instead. Dropping the FF bomb only serves to promote the reflexive, simple-minded, hard-green agenda. “FF” is an intentionally derogatory term, loaded with emotional bias and not at all descriptive. (No, internal combustion engines did NOT kill the dinosaurs). It is an abusive epithet that derails legitimate discussion. Along the same line, mention “hydrocarbon” and the “carbon” part of the equation is mocked. As carbon-based life forms on a carbon-rich world who owe our existence to carbon-based energy, it’s odd that the ubiquitous element responsible for our biological ascension is now cast as a special kind of environmental demon.

I recently heard propane called “stabilized hydrogen” and that sounds about perfect. As we know, the propane molecule is composed of 3 carbon atoms and 8 hydrogen atoms—it is 73% hydrogen! The slight trace of carbon is responsible for making LPG portable, compressible and stable. One day, the wonders of pure hydrogen may be more accessible, but until then, stabilized hydrogen (good ol’ propane) can carry about any load with fewer emissions and more efficiency than other conventional fuels.

2. Stop saying “energy transition.” This phrase requires blind trust in a mythical metamorphosis from conventional fuels to 100% renewables. Neither science nor human preference supports this hallucination. Fulfilling Greta Thornberg’s Ferngully fantasy will require a catastrophic forfeiture of the current global standard of living. In its place, we’ll enjoy the idyllic low-emissions lifestyle of the … 1800s. The only certainty in ridding the globe of conventional fuels is a world where everyone is cold, sick, hungry and unemployed. No rational observer believes that our current culture of comfort and ease will survive without conventional fuels.

Instead, let’s advocate for an “energy expansion.” Expanding energy options, including nuclear, hydrogen and processes unknown to us today, is the path forward. Expanding potential applications, with every fuel deployed at its optimum use, must be the goal. The karma of the universe agrees: Expansion is necessary for progress and growth, while “transition” acknowledges compromise and loss. Both conventional and renewable propane are crucial contributors to a cleaner, more versatile and expanded energy future.

3. Stop settling for “what we’ve always done.” Marketers must demand real value from our state and national associations. This may entail starting new joint ventures to leverage individual strengths, combining duties to lower costs, or creating new entities that respond to specific needs (training, market penetration) for subscriber benefit. It might also go the other way—ending traditional functions that have little impact on today’s landscape, or trimming commitments whose utility is no longer relevant.

Propane associations are not good-old-boy clubs. We exist today to promote propane and create a positive business environment for our members. Board meetings are just the starting points, not the lone outcome. Engaging local marketers and setting audacious goals is essential in this time of (say it with me) energy expansion.

Now is not the time to go wobbly. No one else is going to defend existing market share or hand us new gallons (although EVs are trying hard to do this). The time is now for associations to flex and innovate. In a fragmented industry, it is a challenge for individual companies to move the needle, particularly those whose shareholders demand quarterly returns over long-term investment. Associations are the ONLY path to the cooperation, consortiums and consistency necessary to corral industry brainpower and financial muscle that can make a difference. Let’s embrace some risk-taking.

4. Stop letting regulatory bodies cling to the status quo. This is a particularly Missouri-centric viewpoint, I suppose, but impacts marketers nationwide. Our state borders 8 other states (tied with Tennessee for the most shared borders) so the portability of propane training, regulation and codes is imperative. If your service area falls across a state line, you know what I’m talking about.

Propane is the same product in Cape Girardeau or Cairo, Kirksville or Keokuk, Branson or Bentonville. So why do state codes differ so much? Hubris, inertia and a lack of input from marketers and state associations. The existing patchwork of competing state requirements helps absolutely no one except plaintiff’s attorneys; it is an endless game of “gotcha.” This is true whether you’re a one-truck shop in the center of a state or a multi-stater managing a grab bag of codes coast-to-coast.

The rationale is already proven. In Missouri, state law forbids cities and counties from making their own local rules. These jurisdictions mistakenly believe that they can opt for “stricter” versions, but state law pre-empts this delusion. Instead, every political subdivision must follow statewide statutes and regulations adopted by the Missouri Propane Safety Commission. The reason for this is safety. Being able to train on one standard ensures greater compliance and therefore greater safety for consumers.

The benefit of intra-state consistency also applies to inter-state compliance. We believe that all state propane statutes and regulations should align. This starts with the adoption of the most recent editions of NFPA 54 and 58, with only the barest minimum of essential alterations. State training requirements should also be based on a national (CETP or successor) curriculum. The industry has devoted tens of millions toward a comprehensive industry education curriculum. Why would regulators (and marketers) not embrace these proven concepts? Consistency makes everyone safer, and that should be the goal of state regulatory bodies, not allegiance to antiquated or parochial standards.

5. Stop waiting for someone else to do it. That’s a gutsy challenge, and I get the reluctance. If your foray into autogas ended when your S2G bobtail was towed away, if the natural gas utility has 10 times the manpower that you do, if your own home has a propane furnace next to the electric water heater (no, actually, I don’t get that one), then you give yourself credit for trying.

Then give yourself a little kick to keep trying. No other fuel provider knows your customers as well as you do. The municipal electric utility, the regional natural gas monopoly, the encroaching solar panel hucksters—none of them has the customer contact and community visibility of the local propane provider.
Propane is a clean, hydrogen-rich, US-sourced fuel that ought to be the envy of the competition. It is stabilized hydrogen that accelerates the nation’s energy expansion. Our product’s versatility and efficiency are unmatched. Because of this, we are not going away any time soon.

Use your advantage as a reliable, local energy partner, and invest in new opportunities. We learned this week that a single mobile propane generator installation can generate up to 250,000 gallons a year. Autogas is certainly lucrative—one fleet customer, one bill, one location, significant new gallons, no AR headaches. But if those are big steps, look inward. Your new outreach doesn’t have to be grandiose.

Audit your customer service experience: what can both your CSRs and current customers tell you? Refresh your web site. Spend some time promoting your company on social media. Join a civic club and show up at the meetings ready to answer their questions about propane. (Hint: My Rotary Club members always ask about the price. Have a short response and then continue with all the great benefits on the horizon for propane users.)

Update your vocabulary. Reject complacency. Don’t be discouraged. Remember: Electricity, natural gas, wind and solar may take turns being the “flavor of the month” but vanilla has been the top-selling ice cream for decades.
Start scooping.

Steve Ahrens is President/CEO of the Missouri Propane Gas Association. He can be reached at Steve@MissouriPropane.com.