It’s time to give CNG a chance

Company Focus

Jon Lawes, Managing Director of Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions

Jon has more than 20 years’ experience in the fleet and leasing industry, and became Divisional Managing Director of Hitachi Capital Commercial Vehicle Solutions in 2006. In 2015, Jon was made Managing Director of Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions, which covers all assets from cars to plant. He has just completed a 3-year stint as Chairperson of the BVRLA’s Commercial Vehicle Committee and sits on the overall board of the BVRLA. In addition, Jon is also a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants.

Let me tell you about a particularly exciting alternative fuel. This fuel is both cleaner and cheaper than petrol or diesel. It doesn’t add to a vehicle’s payload in the same way that the heaviest electric batteries do. It can be used to power anything from a tiny scooter to an HGV. And, most exciting of all, it’s available today – existing vehicles can even be converted to use it.

What is this wonderful fuel? The answer is Compressed Natural Gas. This CNG is very similar to the gas that’s fed into our homes, but put to a very different use – transportation. It emits less carbon dioxide than petrol, and less nitrogen dioxide than diesel. And there are versions of CNG that are even cleaner still. Rather than being dug from the ground, Bio-CNG is sourced from decomposing food and other forms of waste. This means that it is both renewable and a good way of capturing greenhouse gases that would otherwise be released straight into the atmosphere. It literally turns rubbish into fuel.

From the survey that Hitachi Capital UK conducted for its recent Future of Fuel report, we know that CNG is not in widespread use among fleets. Indeed, just 4% of fleets told us that they contain pure CNG vehicles. And only 3% told us that they contain dual-fuel CNG vehicles, which can also operate on petrol or diesel. These numbers compare to a whopping 46% for electric-hybrid vehicles.

But Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions has also seen the benefits of CNG at first hand. A few years ago, Cadent – then known as National Grid Gas Distribution – came to us with a challenge. They wanted to reduce the emissions from their fleet, but they wanted to do so in a way that utilised their own product, gas. How could we turn down such a brilliant opportunity?

We spent a period of time researching the options for Cadent, including discussions with fleets that already used CNG, and then decided to do something that had never been done before. We partnered with Prins Autogas in Eindhoven, and sent them a new 18-tonne Suction Excavator on a Mercedes Antos Euro VI chassis, with instructions for converting it for CNG. The vehicle was fitted with green tanks containing the CNG, which mixes with traditional diesel to fuel both the vehicle’s engine and the Suction Excavator. This is the first Mercedes Antos in the world to be powered this way.

It’s worth noting that Cadent would have preferred to run the Suction Excavator entirely on gas, but there is currently no suitable chassis with sufficient horsepower. Even so, they – and we – were delighted with the end results. Trials of the converted vehicle, which began in mid-2016, delivered a 48% reduction in fuel costs and a 44% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. 17 more of these Suction Excavators will be entering Cadent’s fleet at the start of this new year.

So, why aren’t more fleets following Cadent’s example, and switching to CNG? We also asked this question of fleet professionals for our Future of Fuel report. They responded by describing the obstacles that stand in their way. The most frequently-cited obstacle was the infrastructure that’s available for gas-powered vehicles.

This is an understandable response. After all, there are currently 14,000 public charge points for electric vehicles, but the number of public filling stations for gas vehicles hasn’t yet extended beyond double figures. This doesn’t mean that businesses should disregard gas, however. Thanks to organisations such as CNG Fuels, more and more filling stations are being opened all the time. For businesses that can afford it, there’s the option of building a filling station either by and for themselves, or in conjunction with other organisations.

That said, some support from the Government would not go amiss. In his recent Autumn Budget, Philip Hammond found an extra £200 million of state money – backed up by an another £200 million of private money – to create more electric charge points. Yet there was no mention of gas. As Philip Fjeld, the CEO of CNG Fuels, puts it: ‘The benefits of CNG are real. Vehicles powered by this gas are cleaner and less costly than their petrol and diesel counterparts. If the Government really wants to encourage greener motoring, particularly among fleets doing heavier, commercial work, then this option should not be ignored.’

Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions is extremely excited about transport’s greener future. In fact, we want to get there as soon as possible. This means that electric vehicles should be given every chance to succeed, but so too should other alternatives – including CNG. Our work with Cadent has shown us just how effective this alternative fuel can be. It could work for your fleet as well.