Why does the UK lag behind in the use of natural gas-powered vehicles?

The argument for natural gas-fuelled engines is fast becoming ever more compelling.

It’s clean, in abundant supply and economical. Compared with petrol or diesel, biogas can reduce the carbon footprint of a vehicle by up to 80 per cent and has the capability to provide a completely carbon-neutral fuel supply.

So why, with its impressive environmental credentials, has the take up of natural gas in the UK languished behind the rest of the world?

Cost and availability are partly to blame. Natural gas vehicles are more expensive than diesel and are not as readily available in the UK compared to say Asia, and particularly in China, which has the largest and fastest growing natural gas bus fleet in the world.

Today, we are seeing greater investment in the natural gas infrastructure, which means that it is becoming viable for use in mobile applications – like cars, trucks and buses. Compressed natural gas (CNG) is currently used in more than 14.8 million vehicles worldwide. Colourless, odourless and non-corrosive, it can be used in a wide variety of vehicles, including commercial applications, from cars, taxi cabs, vans, light-, medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses. CNG has the potential to transform the ecological credentials of transport firms across Britain. It may not be the only alternative fuel but it is the most flexible across all vehicle types.

The CNG environment in the UK is changing rapidly, with the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) proposing to open a window from April 2016 to March 2019 to make £30 million of funding available to help vehicles convert to ultra-low emission fuels. This is part of a wider EU push under the European Clean Fuel Directive, which states that by 2020, CNG refuelling stations need to be in place every 150km across the trans-European network. This is likely to lead to developments on the M1, M25, M3, M6, M40 and M42.

With HGVs accounting for 20 per cent of all road emissions, despite only accounting for 1.5 per cent of all road users, CNG has the potential to transform the ecological credentials of the supply chain in the UK and across Europe.

Significant investment is already taking place in the UK to adopt the technology, with the recent introduction of CNG refuelling stations in both Reading and Swindon, which has seen 40 per cent of their buses converted to the fuel and over 50 trucks using the facilities per day. With the cost of running CNG vehicles around 30 per cent cheaper than those powered by fossil fuels, the cost of conversion is quickly off-set, and with heavy public and political backing we expect to see natural gas become the backbone of the UK supply chain in the coming years.

Peter Crowe is sales manager, compressor business at Wärtsilä

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