Supermarket chain Waitrose has begun using what is claimed to be Europe’s most advanced fleet of compressed natural gas (CNG) trucks. The 10 Scanias use twin, carbon fibre fuel tanks which store gas at a higher than average pressure of 250 bar, and claim a 500 mile range (up from what was previously around 300 for a CNG truck), 40% lower fuel costs and 70% lower CO2 emissions.
The fuel has previously struggled to gain a foothold in the UK: range issues, reliability concerns about dual-fuel vehicles and the lack of a refuelling infrastructure have prevented widespread usage by the British freight sector.
Plans are in hand to change that as Todd Sloan, Senior Vice President of Innovation and Global Business Development at Agility Fuel Solutions – which co-developed the technology behind the Waitrose trucks – explains. “There’s no opportunity on earth quite like the UK when it comes to natural gas vehicles,” he said. “There have been a few studies published that show that biomethane could support, especially on heavy truck and bus vehicles, enough energy through and beyond 2050.”
“What’s really unique about the UK is you have an incredible gas pipeline network; you’ve got one heading up the east coast, one running up the west coast, with ladders in-between. And you have all this bio-waste, including what they’re calling the ‘black bag waste’ – all the other stuff you’re left with when you remove the recyclables and the food waste – that ‘other stuff’ can actually be incinerated and turned into biomethane. On top of that is a mandate, at government level, to reduce or eliminate landfills; this all means the UK has the ability to support biomethane fuel for heavy truck and bus – and that’s where biggest bang per buck is from an environmental perspective.”
If gas can flourish anywhere in the UK, it’s in the refuse sector. London’s Camden Council is about to replace a series of existing Euro 5 CNG trucks with 15 new, Euro 6 Mercedes-Benz Econic models, which will be run by environmental firm Veolia. According to Bryan, Leeds City Council also runs gas refuse trucks, and both local authorities source their gas from the mains. “There’s a lot of focus, especially in other boroughs of London, on the success of the Camden vehicles,” adds Bryan, “[the gas trucks are] a lot quieter, so potentially it means they could run through the night in London.”
Bryan claims quieter trucks could allow for more overnight deliveries in urban areas, but adds that the infrastructure needs to improve before most operators can realistically consider CNG: “a gas vehicle does cost more, it’s low volume, so the capital cost of the vehicle is higher. It’s doable, though, and there are gas companies out there now that are pushing their wares and trying to get that infrastructure in, with different ways of funding it, but it involves a buy-in with all parties; we can supply the vehicles, they’ve just got to sort the gas supply out, and if they can do that in a way that doesn’t have that much impact on the capital cost to the customer, that’s when the gas infrastructure will grow. But at the moment, everyone thinks it will cost £300,000 for [their own] gas plant.”
Work is underway to broaden the UK’s gas infrastructure. “We’re looking to build a minimum of four to six stations every year,” says Philip Fjeld, CEO of CNG Fuels, which specialises in renewable gas infrastructure. “These are large capacity stations which are going to be on the M1, M6, M4, M5 etc – basically trunking hotspots and corridors where some of the large fleets have vehicles going up and down there every single day of the year.
“Currently, there are somewhere between five to 10 stations in the UK but not all of them are truly public access; some you need an agreement in order to enter and you can’t just get an account and turn up 24/7. But, I’m aware of other companies that have plans for smaller capacity stations [and] the more refuelling infrastructure that is put in place, the easier it is for fleets to adopt. Probably, by next year, that five to 10 will have doubled.”
If the UK’s fuelling infrastructure gets off the ground, then gas may stand a chance – but it’s likely to remain small scale until then. Even so, small steps are happening. In addition to Waitrose, freight and logistics operator Howard Tenens is about to run two gas-powered Scania rigids with funding from government’s Low Emission Freight and Logistics Trial, while Renault Trucks will debut a series of gas-powered Range D models at the at the International Transport and Logistics Week trade show in Paris. Vehicle ranges are improving too, Iveco launched the gas-powered Stralis NP truck in 2016 which can achieve a claimed 1,500 kilometres from one fill, while Sloane says there’s a potential quick fix to get HGVs over the 1000 kilometre mark.
“It’s a behind-the-cab version of the fuel system and we’re asking government officials in the UK for an exemption on total wheelbase length. If we can get, say, one metre of extra wheelbase, we could put CNG systems behind the cab and increase the driving range to well over 1,000km – and that’s a very cost-effective system that would have a return on investment within two years.”