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Fuelling the green gas revolution

Conventional biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel currently account for the majority of biofuels supplied and used in the United Kingdom. Under existing policies, however, the UK is currently some way off being able to meet the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) 10 per cent renewable transport fuel 2020 target. Progress is hampered by continuing debate around Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) and the use of crops for biofuels. Current low gas and oil prices, together with the likelihood of a European Union move towards a greenhouse gas abatement target post-2020, mean serious consideration should be given as to whether alternative fuels can be scaled up moving forward. ADBA is actively working with the Department for Transport (DfT) to examine what role biomethane can play, both in helping to meet the 2020 RED target, and also a possible post-2020 greenhouse gas abatement target.

Given that the UK is in breach of EU air pollution regulations, a more targeted approach towards converting our roads’ biggest polluters – such as HGVs, vans and buses, which together contribute around 40 per cent of the UK’s vehicle emissions – could significantly reduce associated environmental and health risks. As a vehicle fuel, biomethane has the potential to reduce noxious and particulate emissions by around 90 per cent, which Public Health England calculate could shorten the average Briton’s life expectancy by six months. Biomethane also reduces carbon dioxide levels by 20-30 per cent, a point on which former Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change and ADBA Strategic Advisor, Chris Huhne, commented during his keynote speech at ADBA’s National Conference last December:

Biomethane has all the benefits of natural gas without the key disadvantages of warming the planet and having to be imported from volatile parts of the world.

As the only renewable fuel currently available for HGVs, Managing Director of JouleVert, Colin Matthews, added that:

When it comes to commercial vehicles, biomethane provides the best environmental solution in terms of both carbon reduction and air quality.

Director of biomethane gas supply company, Gas Alliance Group, Tony Griffiths, also remarked during ADBA’s National Conference that:

Lack of refuelling infrastructure is the default excuse for not getting on board, but if a fleet operator or local authority wants a facility for dedicated gas engines, we will build it – capital free. That’s how confident we are of the market. Biomethane simply can’t be faulted on cost. We’ve achieved operational cost-per-mile savings for our clients of between 26-38 per cent; we fix the price for two years and thereafter it will only increase with RPI for the rest of the contract.

Just like fleet operators, biomethane producers also require price certainty. Green Gas Trading’s Biomethane Certification Scheme allows producers to monetise the ‘green’ element of their gas (separate from the physical ‘brown’ gas itself), generating an additional income for the producer and enabling purchasers, like M&S, to decarbonise their gas supply.

The Labour Party has pledged to support the rapid expansion of domestically generated green gas between now and 2020. The number of biomethane-to-grid plants has almost tripled to 27 over the last couple of months, generating sufficient capacity to heat almost 100,000 UK homes. That said, the anaerobic digestion (AD) industry would require greater levels of feedstock to fuel the increase in plant numbers which would be needed to generate the quantities of biomethane required to both improve our energy security and to meet our renewable transport fuel targets.  

The DfT’s gas strategy for HGVs recognises that providing biomethane as a low-carbon fuel requires a waste policy which supports AD. Compared to other parts of the UK, however, England has made little advance towards increased uptake in source segregated food waste collections over the past few years. Last year a House of Lords Science & Technology Select Committee report recommended, however, that:

A long-term policy goal should be the creation of a more standardised system of waste collection across local authorities which views waste as a valuable resource.

While the UK is already one of the European leaders on food waste AD facilities and technology, with over 80 plants in operation and plenty more in the pipeline, only about 12 per cent of food waste is currently recycled through AD in the UK. The vast majority of our food waste is still dispatched to landfill, incineration or composting. Where food cannot be reused or redistributed, there is clearly much more potential from using it as a feedstock for AD to generate more biomethane both for low-carbon vehicle fuel and renewable energy. 

Wasting food and drink costs the average UK household over £500 per year and costs the average food outlet £10,000 per year. There are more than just financial savings associated with recycling food waste through AD, however, because each tonne of food waste extracted from the waste stream for AD reduces 500kg of CO2eq emissions. While edible food waste should be redistributed for human or animal consumption wherever possible, if all inedible food waste was diverted to AD then it would increase the industry’s capacity by sixfold.

While the Liberal Democrats are committed to a Zero Waste Britain Act, in contrast Labour appears to have abandoned its pledge to ban food waste from landfill under recent scrutiny. There is a real risk that the industry would not be able to meet Labour’s green gas pledge without a policy which supports source segregated food waste collections. 

Realising AD as the most productive treatment option available for inedible food waste should entrench the technology’s position as one of the few circular economy technologies already functioning commercially; contributing to a wide variety of UK business sectors by reducing their environmental impact and improving their bottom line. AD moves food waste up the waste hierarchy as the most effective technology for organic resource management. By converting organic waste into vital green fuel, essential nutrients for sustainable farming and emerging bioresources, such as biochemicals and bioplastics, AD extracts more value from our food waste than any alternative.

The storable, flexible baseload nature of biomethane means that it can be a constant source of fuel for our homes and vehicles even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. With feedstock supply remaining a core issue, we are continuing to lobby for source-segregated separate food waste collections, and will keep highlighting the value of inedible waste food as a resource.

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