21st January 2022

Biomethane – the future fuel?

One of the most significant challenges on the route to net-zero is how to ensure that transport and haulage services can operate effectively while also meeting the UK government goal of reducing emissions by 78% by 2035.
In 2019, HGVs accounted for 18% of UK transport emissions, making the industry a key focus for decarbonisation. Electric vehicles are considered by many to be the long-term solution to decarbonising the haulage industry. But with their widespread implementation still being years away, what measures can we take in the interim? 

Biomethane – a mid-term alternative 

Much of the discussion about methods of decarbonisation seems to quickly lean toward the benefits of electric vehicles (EV). There are increasing numbers of electric vehicle trials, and more fleets are introducing EV's, but this is generally at larger companies. 

A complete shift to EV is years away for small and medium-sized fleets. The cost of buying new vehicles or converting existing trucks is a big hurdle for smaller sized companies. 

Between the combined challenges of Brexit border rule changes and the driver shortage, it is not unreasonable for fleets to be focussing on the short-term so that they are still in business when the net-zero targets arrive.
However, environmental risks are not going away, and neither is the pressure to cut emissions, which is why biomethane is growing in popularity. 28 European companies are currently working to increase the use of biomethane as a fuel source across the EU. 

In December 2021, Scotland’s first biomethane refuelling station opened between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Here, they can refuel up to 450 lorries per day with biomethane sourced from food waste – cutting carbon emissions by 90% with fuel that is 30%-40% cheaper than diesel. 
This new station is part of CNG Fuels’ UK-wide strategic network. Seven stations are already operational, with plans to open to 14 more by 2023, including the world’s largest near Bristol.

What is biomethane, and how is it produced? 

Biomethane is a sustainable fuel source, is not imported and is derived from waste. Rather than being removed from the ground like fossil fuels, biomethane is produced using organic matter from landfills which emit carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases as they decompose.
Biogas plants collect the organic matter and store it in tanks from which the different gases can be extracted, in particular methane, which can become a fuel source. In addition to creating fuel for vehicles, many biogas plants also use the fuel to cover their energy costs, helping to keep their overheads and environmental impact as low as possible.
The biomethane production process does not fully eliminate the release of unwanted or toxic elements into the atmosphere. However, it does reduce the amount of methane being released from landfills and it does reduce the industry's reliance on burning fossil fuels. Biomethane is therefore helping to reduce overall emissions and is not considered to be contributing to the greenhouse effect. 


Implementation of biomethane 

Another benefit of biomethane is that it can be converted into carbon-negative green hydrogen when required.
Currently, the biomethane industry can potentially generate 76TWh of biomethane per year - 97% of the current HGV need. With additional plants being built and plans to expand its use across the EU, growing demand can be met, allowing for a rapid decrease in reliance on fossil fuels from road transport across Europe.

Alternative to diesel? 

Biomethane and natural gas are structurally very similar, and can both be used in a combustion engine - resulting in the development of hybrid fuels. As biomethane becomes more accessible, manufacturers can gradually increase the amount of biomethane in the mix, leading to an increasingly renewable fuel source that doesn't impact drivers. Biomethane can also be combined with diesel in a similar hybrid approach to reduce emissions from large vehicles.
A hybrid solution that has already been picked up by major UK supermarkets, including Sainsbury’s and Tesco is bio-LNG – a hybrid blend of liquefied natural gas and biomethane. This combination is currently estimated to cut fuel costs by 20%-30% and CO2 by 20% compared to pure diesel, with both figures expected to improve as biomethane production increases.

Environmental impact 

While the UK has committed to reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, it is important to consider how much irreparable damage could be done to the environment in the decades before this deadline arrives. 
To meet targets, emissions and fuel types must change quickly. Biomethane allows for a swift reduction in carbon emissions from road transport without the need for new vehicles – making a rapid and significant reduction in emissions possible.

Impact on drivers and fleets 

Despite many positives, upgrading existing vehicles to become fully gas-powered will require investment and the potential for increased maintenance costs. But even with this, a June 2021 report by the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association (ADBA) estimates that a vehicle covering 160,000km each year will be able to pay back the outlay in just two years.
In terms of performance, Bio-LNG has further benefits, including reduced engine noise (natural gas engines can be up to 50% quieter than diesel, making operation in urban areas or outside business hours more viable) and suitability for both gas and dual-fuel vehicles.
Rather than waiting for electric vehicles to become viable, biomethane enables hauliers to act now and ensure their fleets are dramatically cutting down on emissions, while also saving money. Electric and hydrogen may become the fuels of the future, but biomethane is positioned to become the fuel of choice for today, providing significant benefits for both the industry and the environment. 
Find out more about the evolution of haulage: Truckpark 2049 – the truckpark of the future.

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