For the past 200 years, gas has been a fuel that has offered the UK flexibility – be it for street lighting, industrial processes, power generation, or heat demand. During this time, the UK has built the world’s leading gas grid infrastructure, which today directly supplies the energy used to heat 85% of British homes. Faced with the challenge of climate change, the next stage in its evolution will be low-carbon or ‘green gas’.
Gas currently accounts nearly 50% of non-transport UK primary energy needs – primarily for power generation and heat. But it also offers an option to help decarbonise parts of the transport sector, particularly for vehicles like HGVs, where large powertrains are needed.
In addition to tackling carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the Government has recently come under real public pressure to toughen up its plans to tackle illegal levels of airborne pollutants in our towns and cities, most notably nitrous oxides (NOX) and particulate matter (PM) which cause and exacerbate a raft of debilitating health conditions. Action on the twin challenge of CO2 and air quality must permeate every level of government, and every department of government.
There are approximately 39 million vehicles on the roads in the UK and HGVs, buses and coaches make up less than 2% of that total. In total, a staggering 324 billion vehicle miles were travelled in the UK last year, with HGVs, buses and coaches contributing 6% of that total. This relatively small number of vehicles emit 20% of the UK transport’s greenhouse gases. A recent report by Element Energy showed that just 18 months on from its opening, a compressed natural gas (CNG) filling station at Leyland in Lancashire is cutting CO2 emissions from the HGVs that use it by 84%, thanks to its exclusive usage of renewable biomethane. These are not marginal gains, they represent transformation potential for a sector that is notoriously difficult to decarbonise. Forward-thinking companies like Waitrose, who use Leyland, are at the forefront of this transformation.
But there’s a by-product too, what economists would call a positive externality. Those 2% of vehicles, travelling just 6% of the miles in the UK, also emit 43% of road side nitrogen oxides. Given that there were an estimated 40,000 early deaths last year as a result of poor air quality, then it should be a cause for concern. Low-carbon vehicle trials showed NO2 emissions down 74% when using gas not diesel; NOx down 41% whilst Iveco (who make diesel and gas trucks) reckon a EuroVI gas HGV produces 96% fewer particulate matter emissions compared to its diesel counterpart.
There has been some action in London around ultra clean air zones, but wholesale switching from diesel to gas HGVs, whilst economically rational (with 30% savings on a pence/mile basis) has been too slow. Yes, there is a need for another 150 or so, strategically located gas-filling stations to give fleet operators a real choice, but the Government could do more to signal their support for the switch. And sadly, Conservative MPs are lagging behind Labour in support for regulation to encourage the switch from diesel (52% versus 73% support according to a Dods survey on behalf of EUA).
It will also need joined-up government, too. The Department of Transport is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions from HGVs; Defra have responsibility for air quality; BEIS look after energy policy; the Department for Health pay the bill for NHS treatment for those affected by poor air quality. It’s easy to see the flaws in this structure. Let’s hope there is leadership on this to deliver.
Mike Foster is the Chief Executive of the Energy and Utilities Alliance, a not-for-profit trade association that provides a leading industry voice to help shape the future policy direction within the energy sector
The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue