You’ve probably heard the old adage, “Focus on the solution, not the problem” — which is valuable advice for taking a proactive approach to problems. However, what happens if we focus on the solution and lose sight of the actual problem we’re trying to solve? Perhaps that’s why there is also the saying, “Focus on the problem, not the solution” — and why we shouldn’t put much stake in sayings.
Global warming is a very complex problem, and overly simple solutions such as, “We have to decarbonize, and the single solution is ‘this,’” risk disrupting economies, industries, businesses and lives. The propane industry is well-positioned to provide a solution, but it is paramount that the industry takes a holistic view of the challenge, keeps a focus on the core problem and considers a wide range of actions to address the challenge.
The Core Problem
Assuming you paid more attention than I did in junior high science class, you likely remember that the carbon cycle involves the continual movement of carbon among different reservoirs: the atmosphere, oceans, vegetation, soils and the Earth’s crust. Throughout the cycle, carbon is never created nor destroyed, so decarbonization is a misnomer in the context of the entire cycle. So what specifically do we need to decarbonize?
The core problem is the concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases) in the atmosphere, which is causing global warming. Most of the attention is on carbon dioxide and methane emissions, which per the Environmental Protection Agency respectively make up 79% and 12% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. So, when people say we have to decarbonize, it means we need to lower the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Lowering the Carbon Intensity of Propane Directly
Keeping the core problem in mind — GHGs in the atmosphere — let’s reference the propane industry carbon cycle (see Figure 1). Propane industry emissions generated from extraction to combustion make up the life cycle analysis (LCA) and determine the carbon intensity (CI) of propane, which is measured in grams of CO2-equivalent emissions-per-megajoule of work done by the fuel. The CI of propane directly correlates to the industry’s GHG emissions into the atmosphere.
There is a lot of discussion about how the propane industry can help address the GHG problem by integrating more renewable fuels into the propane supply, including renewable propane and renewable dimethyl ether (rDME). It is important that the industry pursues renewable options to improve the CI of the fuel, and many renewable fuel options provide a double benefit to the industry. There are significant emissions from agricultural, food and municipal wastes.
By capturing these emissions and producing renewable propane or renewable DME, the industry can access carbon-negative fuels that eliminate the GHG emissions from the waste while also displacing fossil fuel emissions. Renewable fuels produced from biomass are also an important feedstock to pursue because biogenic carbon captured by vegetation is used as a fuel in place of anthropogenic carbon from fossil fuels. It is critical the industry continues to pursue all renewable options; at the same time the industry needs to think beyond renewable fuels to assure a viable future.
The propane industry must also optimize efficiency throughout the life cycle of the fuel. For example, are you using delivery routing software and tank monitors to improve your delivery logistics? Are you using a low-carbon fuel (for example, propane autogas) for your delivery and service trucks? Are you upgrading your own equipment to modern efficiency standards? Are you sourcing renewable power for your terminals and your offices? There are numerous ways to improve operational efficiencies, and these improvements can lower the CI of propane today while renewable fuel supplies are developing.
At the point of use, the combustion of propane makes up a significant proportion of the CI. Across the residential, commercial, industrial or agricultural markets, there are investments the industry can make to lower the CI of propane. It is important to educate customers on energy-efficient practices, to promote modern appliances and equipment, and to encourage changes at the customer level that reduce their emissions.
The industry must also continue to invest in research and development of more efficient equipment and appliances that reduce emissions. Fortunately, the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) is already doing work on propane education and research; leveraging PERC’s efforts will help your operation.
Carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) can also be a valuable piece of the decarbonization puzzle. From production to distribution to combustion of propane, capturing CO2 can have a significant impact on the CI of propane. These technologies can even result in negative net emissions if the CO2 is stored permanently. Although a relatively new technology, CCUS is advancing quickly. The propane industry should stay engaged in the progress in this space.
Lowering the Carbon Intensity of Propane Indirectly
If the industry is only focused on decarbonization within the life cycle analysis of propane, then it is missing additional opportunities that can help solve the core problem of GHG in the atmosphere, while further lowering the CI of propane and generating diverse opportunities for revenue. Companies around the world are investing in carbon credits to offset their emissions. Investing in carbon offset projects, such as reforestation, renewable energy initiatives or methane capture initiatives, can reduce global emissions while helping the propane industry achieve a net-zero balance. Because today’s propane is already low-carbon and the industry has numerous strategies available to further lower its CI, carbon offset investments can position propane in a very enviable place compared to competing energy sources.
You may have picked up on this already, but this approach beckons back to a 1970s saying: “Think globally, act locally.” With decarbonization, we need to think globally, act locally and then think globally again. As carbon reduction strategies are implemented across the propane carbon cycle, those strategies need to be documented and monitored. Industrywide initiatives, commitments, collaboration and transparency will help ensure a coordinated effort that properly measures and assesses the impact. This then allows industry organizations like PERC, the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA) and the World LPG Association (WLPGA) to engage with regulators to re-evaluate the industry’s LCA, lower propane’s CI and benefit everyone.
So, back to the original question: Is propane a problem or solution for global warming? Clearly, propane is not the problem, as the problem is the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere. As a low-carbon fuel, propane is a solution today — and propane can still be a solution in the future as the industry works together to further lower the carbon intensity of its fuel. Here’s to a prosperous and sustainable future!