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UK Car Fleets Face Low-Cost, Low-Carbon Future

Because in 6,000 miles a conventional car produces roughly its own weight in carbon dioxide, Inland Revenue is introducing to the United Kingdom a new climate-friendly company car tax regime based on carbon dioxide emissions. However, it appears that many small to medium-sized companies are not planning to make any attempt at cutting emissions from their vehicle fleets, despite the plethora of alternative vehicles and fuels available to them. The question is, are fears of high costs, difficulties with refueling, and poor performance well founded, or will firms be missing out on an important opportunity?

Despite the negative attitude from some companies, a number of organizations are putting aside such worries, and are preparing for the future by either converting existing vehicles or upgrading to a lower emissions alternative. The options available in the UK include liquid petroleum gas (LPG), compressed natural gas (CNG), electric, and electric hybrid vehicles, with hydrogen-consuming fuel cells looming large on the horizon. Such organizations are finding that not only does such technology result in cleaner air, a more sustainable atmosphere, and a clear conscience, but the alternatives are also producing considerable savings on companies’ fuel bills.

Calling All Cars

One organization that in the mid 1990s predicted future changes in government policy towards motoring and who decided to act rather than to react was the 460-vehicle-strong Humberside police force. The organization now has the UK’s largest fleet of LPG-powered vehicles, so Helen André spoke to Fleet and Supplies Manager Alan Hocking to find out more.

The project started in around 1995, when it was felt that the political environment was moving in such a way that as a local authority police force, Humberside Police might be forced to become more “green.” Hocking decided that, as far as transport was concerned, it might be more beneficial if they were to plan their own route into environmental sustainability, and so decided to carry out some research into the suitability of LPG vehicles for the Force.

“Vauxhall gave us two vehicles for long-term evaluation,” says Hocking. “We had them for about six months, when we monitored fuel usage, etcetera, and we gave them quite a good pounding to make sure they would stand up to police work. We then collated all the figures together, took it to our chief officers -- who liked what they saw, and decided that yes, it would be the policy for the Force to go down the LPG route wherever we possibly could.”

Now, however, the situation has changed dramatically, with a large number of garages able to carry out conversions, and it’s even possible to obtain a grant to convert your vehicles to cleaner fuels. TransportAction, run by the Energy Saving Trust, which was set up by the UK Government following the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, is designed to deliver innovative solutions to the environmental problems wrought by transport in the UK. Two programs that are included in the scheme are PowerShift and CleanUp, the first designed to “kick-start” markets for clean fuel vehicles that run on LPG, natural gas -- including CNG, and electricity, and the second designed to encourage the fitting of emissions reduction equipment for larger diesel vehicles and taxis.

The PowerShift program offers grants worth 30-75% of the additional cost of converting an existing vehicle or buying a clean fuel vehicle, but the model must be listed on the program’s register, and grants will only be awarded for conversions on vehicles already complying with certain emissions standards, which will be predominantly vehicles manufactured from 1997 onward. To aid individuals and companies with finding a suitable low emission vehicle, PowerShift also has an independent register of more than 300 clean fuel vehicles, including technical, safety and emissions standards.

Set to 'Motorvate'

There is also Motorvate, a Government-backed award scheme that sets simple targets for improving fleet fuel efficiency and reducing fleet mileage. The core target is a reduction of 12% in the fleet’s total carbon dioxide emissions over three years, 3% of which must be achieved through reduced business mileage.

Hocking investigated the suitability of a number of lower emission fuels. “We looked at electric cars -- but they are very limited in range, and obviously, we can’t have something screaming down the motorway at 120 miles per hour and need to put another penny in the meter,” he said, joking.

Compressed natural gas was also ruled out. “The tank was very heavy, and refueling them was either very expensive . . . if you wanted a quick fill, and still reasonably expensive if you wanted a slow fill, and slow fill was no good to us because we really needed to keep the vehicles on the road 24 hours a day,” said Hocking. Back in the mid Nineties, a slow fill could take about eight hours, he explained. “So that was a non-starter,” he said.

However, despite these fuels’ lack of suitability for Humberside Police, they would be appropriate for other fleets, Hocking points out. For example, once there is an infrastructure in place, CNG would be suitable for HGVs, he says, not least because of the considerable cost savings involved.

“You’re looking at least a cost of a third of conventional fuels, and electric fuels for local councils where they don’t do more than say 60 miles in a shift or a day,” said Hocking. “But with electricity you’ve got to remember that there is still an environmental impact because the power has to be generated.”

So Humberside Police decided to choose LPG. The fuel’s virtues include 90% fewer particulates and 50% less oxides of nitrogen than conventional diesel, and 75% less carbon monoxide, 85% less hydrocarbons, 87% ozone and 40% less oxides of nitrogen than conventional petrol. LPG engines are also 50% quieter than diesel engines and marginally quieter than petrol engines. As the fuel is, in essence, fully vaporized petrol, it can be used with no modifications to the engine itself, requiring no more than a crush-proof tank to be installed in the boot of a car, with a system to deliver the gas from the tank to the engine, and a fuel gauge on the dashboard. This also means that following conversion, a vehicle retains the ability to use petrol, making it more flexible.

Safety First

It is of the utmost importance that tanks should have an electronic shut-off valve in case of accidents, says John Hunter, Managing Director of LPG Autocenters. He warns that less reputable mechanics are not installing such devices, and fears that a serious accident involving a poorly converted vehicle could give LPG a bad name.

“The main thing is to make sure that your conversions are done by a reputable company, preferably they’re LPGA approved and make sure that you are getting the right conversion kit for that particular vehicle,” said Hocking.

Of Humberside Police’s fleet of 460 vehicles, including motorbikes and trailers, to date 264 have been converted. A number of those remaining on conventional fuels, such as motorbikes, cannot be converted, says Hocking.

“We haven’t converted any HGV vehicles as yet, but we are now looking at a system that combines diesel and LPG being burnt at the same time, which gives you more complete combustion -- which reduces the diesel emissions by about 70% we are being told. This is very new,” Hocking said.

Inevitably, as with all the fuel options, there is a disadvantage with LPG, with slightly higher fuel consumption than conventional fuels.

“It varies on what sort of tank you are getting, but we’re looking at roughly between 10 and 15% less than what you would get on a conventional fuel,” Hocking said.

However, the low cost of the fuel outweighs any financial burdens that higher fuel consumption might have imposed. In fact, the savings are so considerable, says Hocking, that the scheme has already paid for itself, and at the moment is saving between £100,000 and £150,000 each year.

All Bases Covered

Organizing fuel for the vehicles is not a problem, either. “We’ve got 16 in-house re-fuelling sites, and three local retail sites that we have contracts with, or they are via PAHH All Star cards,” he explains.

Nor are there any problems with supplying vehicles for long journeys to areas where there are no LPG facilities, explains Hocking:

"Because they are dual [fuel] vehicles they still have their petrol tank so you’ve got a full tank of gas when you set off and a full tank of petrol, and the majority of times you can get where you’re going and back without refueling," he said.

The reaction from the police officers who drive the converted LPG vehicles has been favorable. “We had the initial ones that said, We’ve got a bomb in the back of the car, and, It’s going to explode on us when we have an accident. But no, on the whole it has been quite favorable,” says Hocking.

Humberside Police have also received favorable reactions from other organizations, and, at times, has been inundated with requests for assistance with similar projects. “We’ve had a request from Hong Kong for information, and I know [Anglia Water] are now going down the road of converting some,” says Hocking. “The army, they were interested, and I know in Aldershot they’ve got quite a few [cars] that they have converted.” Other organizations showing an interest include the local council in Humberside and other police forces.

'Go For It'

And what advice does he give to those companies that are unsure about the benefits of low emission fuels?

“I would say go for it. When we first went for it, the argument was, Ah yes, but the Chancellor will change the tax on it as soon as it becomes popular. Well, in five years, we’ve saved ourselves probably close on half a million pounds – and he still hasn’t changed it, apart from favorably. So why waste time. If he does it in 12 months time so what, you’ve got 12 months’ savings. So I would say, yes, go for it.”


edie news feature, written by the edie news team, November 2001. Copyright 2001 Environmental Data Interactive Exchange (edie), all rights reserved. edie is a GreenBiz News Affiliate.

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