E10 petrol, hydrogen and biomethane: Is the UK on the cusp of low-carbon heat and transport?

As the UK Government consults on a low-carbon fuel mix for petrol stations, two industry associations have called for refined government policy to enable the uptake of hydrogen and biomethane use to help decarbonise heat and transport.

E10 petrol, hydrogen and biomethane: Is the UK on the cusp of low-carbon heat and transport?

Major efforts are taking place to ensure that decarbonisation occurs in both transport and heat

The UK Government’s legally binding net-zero emissions target for 2050 will require transformational decarbonisation. This low-carbon transition will create systems shocks, according to the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), that will hit some sectors harder than others – namely heat and transport.

The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions from road transport have increased by 6% over a 30-year period, according to a report from the Office for National Statistics, and now account for 26% of the UK emissions.

The UK is legally bound to provide for 15% of its energy needs—including 30% of its electricity, 12% of its heat, and 10% of its transport fuel— from renewable sources by 2020. The UK is unlikely to meet these targets, with renewable sources of transport fuel sitting at 4% in 2015.

However, major efforts are taking place to ensure that decarbonisation occurs in both transport and heat.

E10 petrol

For transport, the UK Government has announced a consultation on how to make E10 – a lower-carbon fuel mixed with 10% ethanol – to become the standard grade of petrol at UK stations from 2021.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced the consultation today (4 March), claiming that E10 can cut emissions from transport by 750,000 tonnes annually – the equivalent to removing 350,000 cars from UK roads.

Shapps said: “The next 15 years will be absolutely crucial for slashing emissions from our roads, as we all start to feel the benefits of the transition to a zero-emission future.

“But before electric cars become the norm, we want to take advantage of reduced CO2 emissions today. This small switch to petrol containing bioethanol at 10% will help drivers across the country reduce the environmental impact of every journey. Overall this could equate to about 350,000 cars being taken off our roads entirely.”

Current petrol grades in the UK already contain up to 5% bioethanol, which is called E5. Integration of E10 petrol would boost the percentage to 10% and is already used in European countries such as France and Germany.

However, research suggests that the fuel may not be compatible with as many as 800,000 older vehicles. Analysis of the DVLA’s database by the RAC Foundation in 2017 found that 868,000 cars were unable to use E10 petrol in Europe.

All new cars sold in the European Union from 2011 onwards have obligations to be able to run on E10, meaning this will only impact older vehicles, but could impact low-income families as a result.

The announcement from the Department for Transport (DfT) comes after the Government revealed it would bring forward the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040 to 2035. This new ban will now also cover hybrid vehicles and discussions are underway to potentially move the ban forward again to 2032.

Hydrogen heating

Current trajectories suggest that UK renewables for heat will reach 8-10%, still below the UK targets. The UKERC has claimed that a “patchwork mix” of different low-carbon solutions will need to emerge for this sector, with policy needed to drive decarbonisation in an industry that has been historically slow to reduce emissions.

This week, the hydrogen and biomethane sectors have laid their cards on the table as to how to decarbonise the sector through low-carbon solutions.

A new Hydrogen Taskforce emerged this week, led by Shell and BP, that is lobbying for the UK Government to invest £1bn to boost hydrogen production in the UK.

The taskforce believes that the UK can be home to a “world-leading hydrogen economy” by investing £1bn on funding for hydrogen production, distribution and storage projects that could be used for transport and heating and blended into the gas grid.

The taskforce has called for amendments to be made that would enable hydrogen to be blended into UK gas grids and for the UK government to support trials for hydrogen-ready boilers and hydrogen refuelling stations for road transport by 2025.

Biomethane boon

In the same, week, Biomethane: the pathway to 2030, a major report by the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA) has found that biomethane could deliver up to 30% of the UK’s carbon budget for 2030 by helping to decarbonise heat, transport, agriculture and waste management.

The organisation is claiming that biomethane could deliver a 6% reduction in the UK’s emissions by 2030, which would account for a third of the UK’s fifth carbon budget. Incidentally, the UK is set to miss this budget on current trajectories.

The ADBA found that biomethane could provide heating for 6.4 million UK homes if policy is redefined to support the production of biomethane beyond 2021, extend obligations for renewable integration into transport fuel beyond 2032, develop a renewable biofertiliser obligation and establish funds for innovation and hierarchies for optimal waste recycling technologies.

ADBA’s chief executive Charlotte Morton said: “Our sector has seen periods of very strong growth in the last decade as a direct result of supportive policy, but this has stalled in recent years due to the withdrawal of support.  The next ten years, dubbed the climate decade, are our last chance to reverse the climate crisis. To reach its full potential by 2030 and make a real impact, the industry must grow faster than it has ever done. 

“We, therefore, need robust and immediate support from government to capitalize on the sector’s wide-ranging environmental and social benefits, and to unlock a commercially viable, world-class AD industry with goods, services and expertise that can be exported around the world.  In the face of the climate emergency, AD is not an option, it’s a necessity, and a technology that needs to be fully deployed NOW to create the healthy environment and healthy green economy that the UK needs.”

Matt Mace

Comments (11)

  1. John Briggs says:

    Where is the hydrogen coming from?

  2. Hugh Sharman says:

    @ John Briggs, exactly right! And the last time I looked, bio-methane is produced with a roughly equal amount of CO2. What happens to that?


    I see! "We, therefore, need robust and immediate support from government to capitalize on the sector’s wide-ranging environmental and social benefits,

    In other words subsidies taken from tax payers and consumers and given to the ADBA members?

  3. David Peacock says:

    Surely any sustainable proposal for increasing the use of hydrogen should make it clear that its source has to be water and its electrolysis by renewable electricity?

  4. John Thompson says:

    AD is a great alternative. We have been responsible for increasing the Methane output of a major Southern Water site by 15%, yet they refuse to let us try another!! Also, compared to commercial AD sites the Utility Companies only extract enough Methane to satisfy their requirement of making the digestate suitable for landspread. They should be required to leave product in their digesters for much longer.
    John Thompson (www.electronicdescaler.com)

  5. Ken Pollock says:

    Can we please have some more facts and figures in these reports? If we are to use hydrogen, what is the source of the energy needed to liberate it? And then the energy efficiency of the system to get that hydrogen to our homes or vehicles? With regard to AD, you write a lot about decarbonising agriculture, without ever mentioning the feed source for the anaerobic digestion. Presumably agriculture, maybe after its products have become waste food. What scale of contribution do you or its advocates think that will make to our zero carbon future? All a bit too lacking in numerical detail…

  6. Hugh Sharman says:

    @John, you did not answer my question about the CO2 co-produced with bio-methane. And you seem very determined to finger-wag at anyone who does not necessarily agree with you.

    That can be really irritating for those at whom you are finger-wagging.

    @David Peacock, water to hydrogen means 30% loss of electricity in. hydrogen to electricity means 60% loss of the chemical energy in the hydrogen, by way of an expensive fuel cell, to turn the hydrogen to electricity at the very best.
    Last time I looked, the fuel cell still depends on platinum to operate well.
    So hydrogen seems a pretty dreadful way to store surplus but expensive renewable electricity.

  7. Richard Phillips says:

    Hydrogen, volume for volume, compared to methane, contains only one third of the energy of the latter! So three times the volume is needed to provide the same energy, This also means an increase in the line capacity, or an increase in the pressure (already 750psi in the gas grid).

    E10 will contain twice as much alcohol as at present. Since alcohol has half the calorific value of petrol, it reduce the mpg by about 5%. Sneaky!

    The hydrogen task Force is lobbying for £1bn—–you bet they are!!!!

    Richard Phillips

  8. Richard Phillips says:

    Just an afterthought, can anybody explain, at a molecular level, just how CO2, out weighted by water vapour some 50:1 can punch so much above its weight? The radiative element is disputed as being some three tines too large as used in official climate models. But I am not au fait with this calculation.

    I get no response from official circles.

    Richard Phillips

  9. Hugh Sharman says:

    @ Richard,
    I have a similar personal ignorance. Try the explanation, obviously provided by a scientist , at https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/climatescience/climatesciencenarratives/its-water-vapor-not-the-co2.html

  10. Ian Byrne says:

    To answer the question posed in the headline (Is the UK on the cusp of low-carbon heat and transport?): No, it isn’t.
    All these are helpful, but as the comments below indicate, there are major issues around both biomethane and hydrogen. Good biomethane, from AD, can certainly be a positive contributor, but the maximum available supply would be minute compared to current demand for gaseous or liquid fossil fuels (natural gas , petrol, diesel…). Hydrogen is "interesting", but still largely at a research stage if we are to find carbon-efficient ways of producing and distributing it.
    And that leaves E10. Yes, it’s a quick win, but I prefer to think of it as F90 – 90% fossil fuel. moving from 5% to 10% ethanol will make an almost negligible difference to our national footprint.
    So, sadly, none of the innovations in this article would make us on the cusp of a low-carbon energy system. And in case anyone wonders, batteries cannot be the entire solution, either.

  11. Richard Phillips says:

    Absolutely, Ian; it isn’t.
    The problem we have is the almost universal ignorance of technical matters among MPs.
    Wind generation is presented to the Commons by the renewable lobby in terms of TWhours per year!!!! The MPs do not understand that this simple act, completely conceals the days every year, when all wind generation falls to near zero; enormously large area of high pressure settling over the whole country and the North Sea.
    If, as the Commons seems to call for, as recommended by the Infrastructure Commission (equally ignorant!), our power should be 50% renewable, wind, we shall suffer blackouts, even a black start. One event like that would take the country years to recover, forget 2008!
    This is little less than treason! See July 2019.

    Richard Phillips

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