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20 September 2019

UK biofuels as interim solution, still a multi-decade process

The UK’s transport sector accounts for around 25% of the country’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and is now the largest polluter – passing heating within the last year. Cars, rail, planes, and ships all contribute, but as Rachel Solomon Williams, Head of Low Carbon Fuels at the Department for Transport (DfT) said at Future Resource Expo, the cumulative nature of carbon in the atmosphere means that action needs to be taken now.

To this end, low carbon fuels are being pursued, both as a way to lower GHG emissions from the transport sector, but also as a strategic investment for the UK. We have said in the past what we think of a shift to a fuel that offers less CO2, not zero. In EVs, Solomon Williams said that the UK is catching up to the industry leaders, but that it was already a leader in biofuel production – and wants to keep it that way. Could she have been influenced by BP’s position on this by any change?

We covered BP’s new investment in such biofuels, partnering in Brazil a month or so back, and this includes ethanol additions into petrol and diesel, as well as fuel manufactured from waste materials, but the DfT is apparently very concerned with its influence over the market. Solomon Williams said that it was wary of incentivizing the ‘wrong’ outcome by adding tariffs, tax breaks, or other market motivators to a waste material that then becomes problematic – leading to a more wasteful outcome, from a GHG perspective, than simply using conventional fuels.

If we are being kind, we might say that decarbonizing the transportation fuel market is a very careful balancing act, and using the DfT’s market influence could lead to the wrong waste being diverted to fuel, inside the overall waste hierarchy. On this point, Solomon Williams stressed that DfT is not supportive of biofuels at all costs, and that there are all manner of concerns regarding finding the right balance. Nothing like a clear message to ensure no-one gets the wrong end of the stick.

The DfT says it is trying to create a platform that will facilitate investment in these new business opportunities. Waste and residue are hugely important in this strategy, said Solomon Williams, as non-recyclable waste would still be waste if it was not turned into fuel. However, in the current framework, the kind of waste that the DfT is talking about is waste from renewable sources, such as tallow, food waste, and fatbergs from sewage systems. In time, the definition of waste could change.

To this end, biodiesel made from cooking oil has a GHG saving of around 88%, she said, compared to regular diesel. Ethanol made from wheat is around a 61% saving, so using the cooking oil is better on those grounds, but the DfT does not want to over-incentivize cooking oils.

Currently, most automotive fuel sold in the UK is about 4% biofuel, but a recently published 15-year strategy will increase this mix to 12.4% by 2030. However, automaker warranties have to be considered here, as the current 4% level is essentially limited by the fuel systems used in cars on the road – and going higher could start leading to the warranties being voided and subsequent consumer outrage.

There are plans to use new advanced biofuels in the aviation sector too, and progress in electrolysis-derived fuels is promising – although Solomon Williams said these were a bit like magic, pulling hydrogen-based fuel from the air (actually from water). The Future Fuels for Flight and Freight Competition (F4C) has wrapped up, with the prize-pool of funding now being issued, and another DfT competition.

A wrinkle in evaluating the GHG weight of various low-carbon fossil fuels (LCFFs) was touched on, when Solomon Williams said that from a waste and resource perspective, it makes a lot of sense to make fuel from non-recyclable waste. However, she stressed, the counterfactual point of view is key, as if you are assuming that all waste is landfilled, then burning plastic to create energy is terrible from a GHG perspective. If the counterfactual is that all waste is incinerated, then the evaluation would suggest that burning waste for fuel is a good thing to do – but it would still be awful for GHG emissions. The clarity if this argument is right up there with BP’s desire to get deeper into Ethanol production.

Similarly, if the DfT were to incentivize creating fuel from waste materials, it risks creating more waste. If there’s money to be made in using the waste material, the process that creates this waste is essentially encouraged to keep producing this waste, where it might have ‘naturally’ been encouraged to remove it from the process. As all waste has a carbon footprint, the regulation needs to be carefully implemented to ensure that it has a net-positive benefit – and that requires some pretty extensive evaluation.

This brought the presentation to the Q&A section, where she was set upon by a hydrogen fan-boy, who noted that the presentation had made no mention of the fuel. Solomon Williams noted that this was because the DfT’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) remit does not include hydrogen as it is classified as ‘low-carbon.’

We asked whether the DfT was exploring other non-fossil fuel avenues for lowering GHG emissions from the transport sector. Solomon Williams pointed to a recent National Infrastructure Commission report on the matter, which is focused on freight in particular. We asked about truck platooning, and were told that the UK was not so interested as the rest of Europe, because our motorways are too short and bendy.