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The road to renewables: finding a sustainable fuel source

DHL Truck

DHL runs the largest natural gas dual-fuel HGV fleet in the UK. Photograph: Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images


Powered by article titled “The road to renewables: finding a sustainable fuel source” was written by Nick Morrison, for on Wednesday 9th July 2014 12.52 UTC

The search for alternative fuels is one of our biggest challenges so it’s no surprise that it is a key issue for the supply chain too. And when you add an EU deadline into the mix, it is a sure fire way to focus the mind.

The EU’s 2009 renewable energy directive mandates that from 2020, 10% of all fuel for transportation must come from renewables. That may not seem much of a leap when renewables already form 7% of road diesel (pdf), but concern over how land is affected means that the use of conventional biofuels is now limited to 5%, meaning this extra 3% could prove a tall order.

Many small firms in the supply chain will look to government regulations to ensure they meet the target, says Jack Semple, director of policy for the Road Haulage Association.

“In an industry of 80,000 licence holders, you are not looking for each one to be an expert in different fuels,” he says. “In the main, we are looking for an industry-wide approach, with national policy makers and the fuel suppliers setting the framework.”

So far, much of the switch to renewables has involved the use of biofuels, which require a different maintenance regime and create higher costs. An industry-wide approach would ensure operators did not suffer a competitive disadvantage, he adds.

But some larger operators are already pushing onto the 10% target and beyond. DHL’s move to renewables is part of a commitment by its German parent company to reduce CO2 emissions by 30% by 2020, says Ian MacAulay, innovation manager for DHL Supply Chain.

Electric vehicles are one option, although battery weight and limited range means that so far they make up just 11 of the logistics giant’s near-8,000 vehicle fleet, says MacAulay. But this is one area of possible future development. “We’re working hard to make sure they’re commercially viable as well as delivering carbon benefits,” he says.

Using electric vehicles to carry bulky but light loads – such as fashion goods – is one way of making them viable, he adds.

Electric hybrids hold the potential to deliver on both fuel and carbon savings, but will need big advances before they can form a major part of the company’s strategy, he adds. Also on the table are hydrogen fuel cells, although they are more suitable for small to medium-weight vans.

“Battery technology should get cheaper and we’re going to see efficiency levels go up, but at the moment hybrid is not a big part of what we are doing,” MacAulay says.

More promising are alternative sources of biofuel. In one trial, DHL worked with a pub chain to collect used cooking oil, which could be cleaned and added to diesel, while the company has also used biogas from landfill sites in its vehicles. The gas is cleaned and liquefied before being blended with biofuel.

“This is something we want to do more of,” says MacAulay. “The likelihood is that this is going to be the best option for the longer term.”

He estimates that these combined approaches mean DHL is already at or near 10% renewables. But he says that industry-wide efforts to meet the target will need government assurances that the price differential between natural gas and diesel will be maintained, as well as investment in infrastructure such as liquefied natural gas stations.

Biofuel is also a major plank in Sainsbury’s drive to increase the use of renewables, says Gary King, operations support manager at the food retailer. The company has 109 vehicles running on a mix of liquid bio-methane from landfill sites and liquid natural gas, out of a total fleet of 1,051. These 109 substitute up to 60% of their diesel with renewables, he says.

Sainsbury’s has also carried out trials with electric vehicles and looked at technologies including synthetic diesel, ethanol and dimethyl ether (DME), a fuel produced from a by-product of the timber industry, he says.

But converting a vehicle for dual fuel adds a substantial cost even when it is suitable. “Dual fuel doesn’t work all the time for all vehicles,” he says. “You have to make sure you use it with the right size vehicle.” Trials also suggest that dual fuel is less effective in urban driving, he adds.

He says Sainsbury’s is working with manufacturers to look at alternatives, including the development of a dedicated gas engine, although so far this seems less efficient and more expensive than diesel or hybrid options.


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