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County's clean fuel debate

ELECTRIC or hydrogen fuel cell? Biomethane or ethanol? With several alternative transport fuel systems now being tested or used in the UK, drivers who are no longer content to fill their tank with fossil fuels already face a slightly bewildering range of alternatives to petrol and diesel. Yet each kind of fuel has its merits and its staunch proponents, all of whom argued their case at a GreenTech Business Network event which looked at the economic prospects of developing alternative transport fuels in Nottinghamshire.

Co-hosted by the University of Nottingham, the debate took place at the university’s Sir Colin Campbell Building and provided important networking opportunities for those involved in the county’s growing green economy. What may surprise many people is the extent to which alternative transport fuels have already been developed in and around the county.

At Gotham, Trevor Fletcher, MD of Hardstaffe Haulage, has designed and patented a dual-fuel system which allows his haulage fleet to run on biomethane; in Nottingham, sustainable transport manager Chris Carter of the city council is now promoting charging points to large businesses in order to encourage the take-up of electric vehicles; Nottingham City Transport is also trialling the effectiveness of Scania buses which run on ethanol; and down the road in Loughborough, Intelligent Energy has developed hydrogen fuel cell technologies which are being developed for use in cars, motorbikes and aircraft.

An overview of these different technologies was provided by Gavin Walker, Professor of Sustainable Energy at the University of Nottingham and an expert in hydrogen fuel cell development.

One of the clearest messages to emerge from the debate was that the UK Government, unlike its European counterparts, was failing to come up with firm policies to promote the development and adoption of new fuels. While one could point out that ministers have offered support for electric vehicles, the adoption of ethanol continues to be affected by the fact that it is taxed as alcohol in the UK.

This was a point strongly made by Alan Martin, of Scania, which manufactures the ethanol-fuelled buses which are being trialled by Nottingham City Transport on the no.30 route to Wollaton. The tax means it is cheaper to import the ethanol from Sweden rather than source it from an ethanol factory in Norfolk. Even so, the fuel costs of the ethanol buses are still roughly double those of conventional diesel buses.

According to NCT engineer Garry Mellors, the ethanol buses’ fuel costs add up to £55,000 per year compared with £27,500 for diesel buses. Ethanol buses also have significantly higher servicing costs. Although the fuel and maintenance costs have to be put against the ethanol vehicles’ very low emissions, NCT admitted that running the buses would be economically unviable without public subsidy. Alternatively, the Government should stop taxing ethanol as an alcohol to bring its cost down in the UK. “We have to import it from Sweden,” said Mellors. “It’s £1.29 and that really rankles. It’s extortion. They should be encouraging us to produce it in the UK!”

Cost issues were also affecting the market-readiness of other fuel technologies, including hydrogen-fuelled cars, said Dr Walker. “Hydrogen vehicles tend to be too expensive, but talking to Honda and Toyota it is not technology which is the issue; it’s about bringing the costs down and they are looking at 2015 before they have vehicles ready for the market.”

Whatever the long-term viability of all these fuels, it seems that not all fuels are suited to all types of vehicle. Electric batteries suitable for cars, for example, would be inadequate for the big HGVs operated by Trevor Fletcher’s Hardstaffe Haulage group. “You would need something like seven tonnes of batteries to operate a 44-tonne vehicle,” he said.

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