Cleaning up transport with renewable fuels

James Court from the Renewable Energy Association explains how electric, gaseous and hydrogen fuels are playing a significant role in cleaning up the country’s transport emissions

Timed to coincide with the COP22 UN climate change meeting in Marrakesh last November, the government’s welcome of the freshly-ratified Paris climate change agreement in Parliament summed up their motivations succinctly. 

“We look ahead to continuing our leadership on climate action and ensuring that British business continues to play a key role in this new global low carbon economy,” announced secretary of state Greg Clark.

Industry agrees. Motivated by an ambitious Climate Act and binding Carbon Budgets there is significant scope for British businesses to become international low‑carbon technology leaders.

There are narrow windows in time in which, if industry and government collaborate effectively, something bold, world-leading and prosperous can be built. Alternatively, heels can be dragged and ambition belittled to the point in which leadership becomes an uncomfortable word. Without action, goods, services, and new ideas could instead be procured from Asia, North America, or the continent.

While we have missed becoming manufacturing and knowledge hubs for certain renewables in the past, there is an opportunity now to develop UK excellence in biofuels and advanced transport, which in turn co-develops other industries.


The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) reports that 24 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions came from transport in 2015. Contrary to the trend in the power sector, where emissions have fallen by 50 per cent since 1990, transport emissions actually rose in 2013/14 and 2014/15, leaving emissions barely changed on 1990 levels.

It appears that we are falling short of key CCC indicators and that greater action is needed if the government is to meet its Carbon Budgets and
Renewable Energy Directive targets.

It’s gone under the radar but over one billion pounds has been invested in conventional waste-derived biodiesel and bioethanol production facilities domestically. Ensus and Vivergo, the two largest of the UK’s biofuel producers, each have a major facility in the North of England.

The facilities provide around 3,500 jobs in the North East, North West, and Humberside. The industry is tackling pressing sustainability challenges head on by eliminating the use of palm oil in biofuels produced or consumed for example.

Meeting targets is about increasing UK fuel security and ensuring that British companies have a place at the table of international advanced fuel technology leaders. The ambition to reduce emissions and pollution from transport is certainly not confined to the British Isles, and knowledge first acquired in Britain will be valuable abroad.


The Department for Transport in Whitehall is presently consulting on the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, which could put into place the kind of decarbonisation action and innovation on the ground that the government enjoys championing on the international stage.

Upping the obligation on fuel suppliers to blend to 9.75 per cent of biofuels into the fuel mix, an increase from the 4.75 per cent where it has been capped since 2012, will support domestic agriculture, rekindle supply chains, and improve investor confidence. Emphasising the use of waste‑derived biodiesel and bioethanol, which can be made from sugar beet, used cooking oil, tallow and surplus feed wheat, will support domestic biofuels manufacturing.

Is the effort of growing new industry worth it? Resoundingly yes, as GHG emissions reductions for low carbon transport fuels put onto the UK market in 2015/16 was 74 per cent. The industry additionally puts to use a range of the country’s wastes, generates employment, and produces valuable by‑products, including high-protein animal feed.


As the global electric, gaseous, and hydrogen vehicle supply chains grow, there are also opportunities for British leadership, particularly beyond 2020. There is also scope to develop power and heat sector technologies, as the links with the renewable energy, waste, clean tech and transport industries are becoming increasingly connected.

The best two examples of this overlap are around the co-development of the biomethane and gaseous transport sectors, and the electric vehicle and stationary energy storage sectors.


This February, transport headlines were made by a CNG Fuels and Waitrose announcement. Forty per cent cheaper than diesel and 100 per cent renewable, new Scania-built lorries using a new design of compressed natural gas (CNG) fuel tanks allow heavy goods vehicles to store CNG at 250 bar, and thereby travel up to 500 miles (up from a previous ceiling of 300). Renewable gas derived from food and other organic wastes, called biomethane, will power these 10 new vehicles purchased by Waitrose.

In 2015 the UK was the fastest growing biomethane market in the world. There are currently 84 biomethane projects in operation in the UK, producing around three TWh per year of renewable gas, according to CNG Fuels. This is equivalent to around four 60,000-tonne LNG tankers worth of gas that is being consumed or injected into the grid that the country won’t need to import from the Middle East. The majority of plant, pipelines and associated works in relation to biomethane is sourced in the UK.


KPMG’s 2017 Global Automotive Executive Survey highlights conflicting views in leading auto company boardrooms. Sixty-two per cent of executives surveyed thought that battery electric vehicles will fail due to a lack of infrastructure. Seventy-eight per cent, however, saw fuel cells to be the real low-carbon breakthrough.

While this may be believed, it is yet to be seen and it is battery electric vehicles that have been making the headlines and that have been more widely deployed. Oil and auto companies, including Shell, Enel and BMW are reported to be rolling out hundreds of EV charge points by 2020 across the EU. Alternatively‑fuelled vehicles achieved a 4.2 per cent market share in January 2017 in the UK, a record high, according to the SMMT. The CCC central scenario to 2030, however, requires 60 per cent of new car sales to be ULEVs by 2030.

How does this benefit Britain? Nissan, the UK’s largest vehicle manufacturer, is making electric vehicles at its Sunderland plant. With it associated equipment, research facilities, and specialist knowledge acquired in the advancement of battery technology for the EV industry is being applied to the energy sector more widely.

In particular, lithium-ion battery technology is rapidly advancing for home or grid-scale use. The inaugural Energy Storage and Connected Systems (ESCS) conference in London in February emphasised the interconnections between these two growing sectors. Speakers from Open Energi and the LowCVP spoke about the role of advanced energy storage technologies in improving energy security, reducing costs, and supporting the roll out of greater amounts of renewable power capacity.

The hardware and software that connects stationary storage, electric vehicles, and demand‑side response technologies is cutting edge, and is becoming more valuable. For the auto industry, KPMG’s survey found that 85 per cent of executives believed digital systems will generate greater revenues than car hardware in the future.


What’s keenly needed now is coordinated government action. Recent funding announcements for advanced freight technologies and energy storage research and deployment are strong starts, as is mention of the storage and EV industries in the Industrial Strategy green paper.

A range of regulatory upgrades are needed to allow for further deployment, and greater leadership. Some of this will take individual departmental action, while for other aspects we now look to the forthcoming Emissions Reduction Plan.

Let’s act swiftly and decisively, as our window for collaboration and action is now.

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