Dual-fuel vehicle usage may increase following the DfT’s £11.5m funding, writes George Barrow

The uptake of gas-powered trucks has increased, with several high-profile operators, including DHL, Howard Tenens and United Biscuits, adding dual-fuel vehicles to their fleets.

Away from the large fleets, uptake has been slow, and that has largely been due to the scarcity of refuelling stations in the UK, where gas road fuels – CNG, LNG and biomethane – are in short supply at retail and wholesale levels. The lack of infrastructure has been seen as a major stumbling block for those unable to house and fund gas filling stations, but seed corn funding is beginning to generate interest in the technology. This has come in the shape of an £11.5m contribution by the DfT – administered by the Technology Strategy Board – to the Low Carbon Truck Trial aimed at encouraging the uptake of low-carbon CVs.

On trial

Thirteen consortia, including hauliers, universities and testing facilities, are involved in the trial, which hopes to generate evidence of the benefits of low-carbon vehicles, increase understanding, and develop the technology. It should also initiate a publicly accessible refuelling network in the UK.

A total of 354 vehicles will be involved in the trial: 339 dual-fuel vehicles, five dedicated gas trucks and 10 powered by used cooking oil. Among the 13 active trials, there are 85 trucks reporting data, covering more than 1m km per month and consuming, on average, 900,000 litres of diesel, 527 tonnes of natural gas, 48 tonnes of cooking oil and 41 tonnes of biomethane. The majority are fuelled at private depots with refuelling stations, but 26 public-access fuelling stations are scheduled to be created, with 18 new sites and upgrades to eight stations.

Several suppliers, including CNG Services, Gasrec and the Gas Alliance Group, plan to increase the availability of renewable biomethane gas, with a number of new plants and refuelling sites. Fifteen biomethane generation projects are scheduled for this year by CNG Services with 20 planned for 2015, while LNG specialist Gasrec – which liquefies methane from anaerobic digestion in landfill – has six open access sites planned this year and four for 2015. These are in addition to its 10 refuelling sites in operation and will help supply the 60kg of biomethane used on average by each truck per day. “A year ago we were fuelling about 40 vehicles,” said Ben Sawford, Gasrec commercial officer. “Now we are fuelling about 500.”

Ed Carter, National Grid commercial relationship and development manager, said supply is key to the growth of gas-powered trucks. National Grid’s Isle of Grain LNG facility is the largest terminal in Europe, with a 15 million tonnes/year capacity. “LNG has potential as a clean, cheap fuel,” he said. “Qatar is a main source of LNG, and the quality of the methane is well within the requirements for the truck market. Next year looks like a turning point, with potentially a large supply coming from Africa, Australia and the US.”

Availability and infrastructure in the UK transport sector is set to expand as the trial continues. The last trial will finish in early 2016, but the government’s decision in December to maintain the duty differential between diesel and gas road fuels for 10 years will add a financial argument to the increasing practicality of running dual-fuel or gas-powered vehicles for the long term. However, Jon Horsley, lead technologist for low carbon vehicles at the Technology Strategy Board, said the differential should not be seen as a permanent crutch, but that the more evidence gathered in the trial, the more likely it is to inform future interventions.

Compliant vehicles

If dual-fuel vehicle usage takes off, converters and OEMs will have to create Euro-6-compliant vehicles as supplies of Euro-5 units for conversion dry up. Dual-fuel conversion suppliers Hardstaff and G-volution will have Euro-6 compliant versions this year, while Iveco and Mercedes-Benz are working on products, with a range of CNG/LNG Iveco products expected this year.

Nick Blake, Mercedes-Benz sales engineering manager, said while it is the role of manufacturers to develop technologies, legislation will govern policy. “We develop for a world market, so have to bear that in mind while looking to future legislation.”

Industry reaction

As part of the Low Carbon Truck Trial, a study was conducted by Cenex, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills’ low-carbon centre of excellence, to gauge users’ reactions to the low carbon vehicles.

The study showed that driver acceptance is significantly higher than their pre-trial perception of gas trucks, with an overwhelming majority believing they were better than they thought they would be. 80% of drivers said they were proud to be part of a fleet exploring new technology.

Operators also noted the wider acceptance of the vehicles by their staff, reduced CO2 emissions and lower operating costs. However, many pointed to a lack of infrastructure and reliability in fuel supply.