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

The UK’s charging network is in need of expansion and reform

Sales of electric vehicles have been increasing rapidly over the last five years, from around 3,500 units sold in 2012 to 70,000 this year. No longer a futuristic novelty, there are now roughly 500,000 electric and hybrid cars on Europe’s roads.

The UK Government is keen to support the development of the private electric vehicle (EV) sector. In most circumstances, buyers of new electric cars can take advantage of a government grant of up to £4,500 put towards the cost of their vehicle, as well as funds for a charging unit at home, and an exemption from road tax and the congestion charge. The 2016 Autumn Statement also outlined the creation of a £390 million investment fund to support the development and operation of both low emission and autonomous vehicles.

While consumer uptake has been reasonably strong, the UK’s network of charging points has been lagging behind. There are around 11,000 charging points in the UK, with proportionally more in London and a good distribution of charging facilities dotted across the motorway network.

The usual criticisms leveled at charging points are fourfold: there aren’t enough of them, they don’t always work, they’re complicated to operate and they’re too expensive.

Charging stations are often owned and operated by different firms, and each require different memberships, with different apps and login details, as well as having an array of attachments for the various vehicles. Last year, the Environmental Audit Committee also found that certain charging stations were costing as much as £7.50 for a 30-minute rapid charge, putting the cost of some trips into the same bracket as a modern diesel.

Depending on your energy supplier, charging an electric vehicle can cost as little as £3 from your domestic power supply, which is where 90% of charges are currently taking place. As most all-electric cars remain more expensive than comparable vehicles in their respective categories, the prospect of ultra-low running costs is a major draw for consumers.

Quentin Wilson, the motoring journalist and a campaigner for FairFuelUK, told the Times last week: ‘‘No one should be paying over the odds to charge an electric vehicle, otherwise the push towards green cars will fall at the first hurdle.’

The Times also reported that the Department for Transport is planning to crackdown on the cost of rapid charges, potentially setting common pricing structures and making power points easier to access. A spokesperson for the DfT said that while the upfront costs of using these facilities remained a “commercial matter” - “we do not want prohibitive pricing to be a barrier to uptake and will continue to monitor developments.”

The scarcity of rapid charging points is leading to a new behavioural issue in car parks across the country. “We do get charge rage if someone ICEs your bay”, Dale Vince, founder of Ecocentricity told The Telegraph a few weeks ago. “And people don’t like it if someone parks a Tesla to charge for two hours. When your car has finished charging, our message is: move it.” ‘ICE’ in this context refers to parking a car with an Internal Combustion Engine into a charging bay, which happens more often than you might think.

The need to expand the availability of these units was recognised back in November, when Philip Hammond announced that £80 million of the Government’s £390 million fund for the EV sector would be used to support the installation of charging points. According to Erik Fairbairn, chief executive of Pod Point, each charging unit costs between £2,000 and £20,000 to install.

But while charge rage is becoming more prevalent, “range anxiety” is now less of a problem, as car makers continue to improve the battery capacity of their cars. The new £25,000 Renault Zoe R90 Z.E.40 Signature offers a maximum range of up to 250 miles in optimal driving conditions, or around 185 miles in real-world conditions as experienced by WhatCar. At the top end of the spectrum, the £92,000 Tesla Model S P100D has a range of 380 miles.

Although the charging system today has a reputation for being a bit fiddly, the convenience of being able to plug in by the road-side, in your house, or via a lamppost as some have proposed, means they could be far more widely available than petrol stations.

Back in September, the Environmental Audit Committee warned that unless charging facilities are improved, the Government would fall far short of its aim to see 9% of cars and vans classified as ultra-low emissions vehicles by 2020.

It may now require action from the Government and local authorities to bring about the changes needed for electric cars to be considered a mainstream alternative to their fossil-fuelled cousins.

Ashley Coates is a member of Bright Blue and freelance journalist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.