Issue Number: 105   February 2014

Drive on: the future of gas in transport in the UK

Over the last six months, gas has been an explosive issue with almost daily developments in the British media over the possibility of fracking [1]. The repercussions of a possible shale gas revolution in the UK could have a massive impact on how we fuel the country, particularly in what fuel we put into our vehicle. However, the future of gas in vehicles is far from certain. It will require both large investment in the fuelling infrastructure and also a popular demand for natural gas vehicles.

The US leading by example

The shale gas revolution in America and falling gas prices has been an important factor in plans to use gas in vehicles, particularly in the form of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and, increasingly, as Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). There are already signs that there will be a revolution in truck fuels in America, with Shell's flagship investment of $300 million in 200 LNG pumps at 100 locations across a popular route for trucks.



Figure 1: LNG pumps at a Blu Transfuels filling station in Salt Lake City (US). [2].


But the UK is not the US. Natural gas vehicles are not very popular in Britain, which is partly explained by the UK's higher gas prices. But it is probably more related to the classic 'chicken-and-the-egg' scenario. Developers in the UK will be reluctant to invest in LNG fuelling infrastructure until they are confident there will be a market for LNG to fuel vehicles. And vehicle owners will not convert engines until they are confident that there will be LNG supplies available throughout the country at economic prices. It has led to a stalemate.

Rays of hope

However, the UK is not completely set in its ways about using only petrol or diesel as vehicle fuels. The rise of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), more popularly known as autogas, has set a precedent for the possibility of using non-conventional fuels in the transport sector. According to Calor, there are over 160,000 LPG-powered cars in the UK [3]. Second-hand LPG-cars are even available on eBay.

An important driver of change in vehicle fuel will be the environmental initiatives set out by the UK and the European Commission. Both the UK and EU have current commitments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The EU has also developed specific targets to reduce the number of oil-based fuels in transportation. It wants its member countries to wean themselves off diesel and petrol, and onto gas. By 2020, the EU wants natural gas to have a 10% share in the transport fuel sector (see figure 2).



Figure 2: EU Strategy for the substitution of oil based fuels by 2020[4].


In light of this, LNG as a transport fuel might have a bright future in the UK. LNG is a good option for some vehicles because it is more energy intensive compared with other gas options like Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). There are already cars that run on CNG in Europe, like the Mercedes-Benz E200 Natural Gas Drive which has hit the market in Germany (see figure 3). LNG has an advantage over CNG due to its far greater energy density. When natural gas is cooled down to about -161°C, the gas' volume is reduced to 1/600th of its volume at standard temperature and pressure.



Figure 3: Mercedes-Benz E200, a car that runs off natural gas. [5].


LNG in vehicles

One drawback to LNG as a vehicle fuel is that it has to be stored in heavily insulated tanks. And not even the thickest insulation can keep LNG at -161°C for long periods of time. This means that a vehicle full of LNG will eventually seep methane out into the atmosphere (methane is around 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period). LNG as a fuel is not ideal for cars, but it is better for larger vehicles that are constantly on the move.

The heavy goods vehicle (HGV) sector is therefore a prime candidate for conversion to LNG. BOC, a member of the Linde group, predicts that in ten years time, LNG will 'conquer many markets', particularly for heavy trucks in point-to-point and back-to-back operation [6]. According to the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the HGV market accounts for 21% of total UK greenhouse emissions. This is a staggering share in greenhouse emissions when it is considered that HGVs only account for 1% of vehicles on the road [7]. There is potential, then, for a great reduction in greenhouse emissions if LNG can replace diesel as a fuel in HGVs.

However, buying an LNG-fuelled truck will cost about $40,000-$80,000 more than a diesel-powered one. One American company called Peterbilt is offering trucks and claims that you can recover the additional costs in fuel savings in the second year of operation [8]. But the expected savings are disputed. Several truckers have been interviewed and some considered that the fuel economy was exaggerated. For instance, LNG trucks are going about 450 miles, compared with the prediction of 550 miles. Maintenance costs have also been an unpleasant surprise for some. One trucker said: 'These [LNG] trucks have had an inordinate amount of issues', pointing out that maintenance costs have run about seven to eight cents per mile, which is double the diesel counterpart [9]. Despite this, the expected savings in fuel over a longer-time frame more than makes up for these costs.

Leading the way forward

Gasrec is one of the leading pioneers of using an LNG-based fuel in the HGV sector. It is currently developing fuelling infrastructure for HGVs that run on Bio-LNG, a fuel mixture consisting of 75% LNG and 25% liquefied biomethane (LBM). The LBM is produced at Gasrec's production plant in Surrey, which is adjacent to a large landfill site. The plant uses the gases created by the decomposition of the organic waste which is then cleaned and liquefied at the plant.

A refueling network is currently being deployed across the UK, with 8 initial locations identified. Construction began in April 2013 and is planned to finish at the end of 2015 (see figure 4). There will be onsite fuel storage to support up to 700 vehicles refueling per day. The benefits to using Bio-LNG are considerable: the user should save around 20% on fuel costs. According to Gasrec, Bio-LNG should also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 80%, cut nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide by 85%, and reduce particulate matter emissions by 90% [10]. Norman Baker, the Transport Minister, has said that 'Using wastes to make fuels is a win-win, often delivering some of the greatest carbon savings on any biofuels' [11].



Figure 4: planned locations for refueling stations.[12].


Conclusion

Although it is currently a fledging fuel option, there are signs that LNG could be a player in fuelling HGVs in the future. Companies like Gasrec are leading the way and providing the fuelling infrastructure for LNG-fuelled trucks. Increasing pressure from the EU to reduce carbon emissions will play a role in the transition from oil-based fuels to gas-based fuels. Interestingly, the possibility of fracking in the UK might also help to drive LNG as a fuel option. However, the current embryonic state of LNG as a vehicle fuel does not guarantee it will ever reach full maturity. Like fracking in the UK, the developments in America are important to debates. If LNG as a vehicle fuel continues to grow in the US and proves it is a strong alternative to diesel, then this might provide the much needed confidence to the investors/potential users in the UK.

Researched and written by MJMEnergy Analyst, Nico Cottrell,


[1] Fracking or hydraulic fracturing is a technique of drilling and injecting fluid (a mixture of chemicals, water and sand) into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks and release natural gas).

[2] http://money.cnn.com/2013/05/06/technology/blu-natural-gas.pr.fortune/

[3] http://www.calor.co.uk/products-and-services/autogas

[4] https://connect.innovateuk.org/web/low-carbon/natural-gas-vehicles (data derived from European Commission)

[5] http://www.carscoops.com/2013/08/mercedes-launches-new-frugal-natural.html

[6] http://www.boconline.co.uk/internet.lg.lg.gbr/en/images/liquefied-natural-gas-brochure410_73977.pdf

[7] http://gasrec.co.uk/presentation/Future-Proof-Fuels-Handbook-2013.html#p=32

[8] http://www.thepetestore.com/natural-gas-engines/

[9] http://www.trucknews.com/news/early-lng-adopters-experience-mixed-results/1002630929/?&er=NA

[10] http://gasrec.co.uk/presentation/Future-Proof-Fuels-Handbook-2013.html#p=6

[11] http://www.e2bpulse.com/Articles/319375/Biomethane_fits_the_bill_says_Transport_Minister.aspx

[12] http://gasrec.co.uk/presentation/Future-Proof-Fuels-Handbook-2013.html#p=6


February 2014 MZINE