Green Gas

Connecting HGVs to the UK’s green energy journey: the future of gas is green and the future for HGVs is gas

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

Can the anaerobic digestion industry survive with the reduced feed-in tariff?

Anaerobic digestion (AD) can play a role in meeting some of the UK’s environmental policy objectives. AD produces biogas, a renewable, low-carbon energy source, which displaces fossil fuels. It also has some important co-benefits. Harmful methane emissions are reduced by diverting waste from landfill. Moreover, the digestate that remains after biogas has been produced can be applied to agricultural land in place of an artificial fertiliser.

The Committee on Climate Change has identified anaerobic digestion as a technology that can reduce emissions in the agricultural and waste sectors. However, in cases where biogas is made using purpose-grown crops, carbon emissions can actually increase through changes to land use. For this reason, it is important that there are appropriate safeguards on the sustainability of the feedstock, if genuine carbon savings are to be achieved. This is a concern that the Government has recognised, by making public support for AD contingent upon developers meeting sustainability criteria.

The last few years have seen a significant increase in anaerobic digestion capacity in the UK. The most recent figures from the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA) show that in August 2015 there were 411 anaerobic digestion plants operating in the UK, generating over 500MW of power, with 89 new plants built in 2014 alone. The UK now has the second largest biogas industry in the EU, second only to Germany, which has over 8,000 AD plants.

The Government recently capped the amount of subsidy available through the feed-in tariff scheme and introduced a degression rate to encourage the industry to keep cutting its costs. For now, however, demand for new AD projects is strong. Within 15 minutes of this quarter’s scheme being opened, the cap for new AD generating capacity had been exceeded. DECC is forecasting an additional 17 new plants this year under the reduced subsidy regime. As the degression rate cuts the level of subsidy, projects supported through the feed-in tariff will likely become less economical and  harder to finance.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) also provides a subsidised revenue stream both for biogas and biomethane, an enhanced biogas that is injected into the gas grid. Following confirmation of funding for the RHI in last year’s Spending Review, DECC is now consulting on reforms to the structure of the scheme. Their consultation document sets out an ambition for an annual deployment of 20 biomethane plants by 2021 through the RHI. The Renewable Energy Association (REA) has found that, by the end of 2016, there will be enough UK biomethane capacity to replace four 60,000-tonne LNG tankers, with potential for this to rise to 45 tankers’ worth by 2035. This would reduce our LNG imports by a quarter and offer significant carbon savings.

One of the keys to the industry’s long-term future will be further cost reductions. In our Green and responsible conservatism report last year, we called on the Government to set out clear trajectories for phasing out subsidies for renewable energy technologies. The Government does not want to subsidise green industries in perpetuity through consumers’ energy bills. Subsidies are to be a temporary measure while supply chains and technologies develop, and costs fall.

There are signs that the industry is willing and able to meet this challenge. ADBA has recently launched a cost-competitive taskforce, which aims to bring down the levelised cost of energy to the same level as Hinkley Point C by 2020. The REA believes that the industry could also be helped by greater levels of food waste collection from households. Policy Exchange also called for mandatory food waste collection in their 2009 report on this subject. A report from the Green Investment Bank last year argued that greater consolidation of the number of operators in the AD market could also improve the economic feasibility of new projects.

Anaerobic digestion is still a developing industry, with some important challenges to be resolved. However, the changes to the Government’s subsidy regime will allow a small but successful UK industry to grow.

Sam Hall is a Researcher at Bright Blue

This article originally appeared in the May/June edition of Bioenergy Insight and can be viewed by subscribers here.