Future Fleet Forum 2018: Biofuels and a zero carbon fleet, by Norman Harding

Published:  10 March, 2018

Delegates were promised a ‘warts and all’ insight into fleet management by Norman Harding, from the London Borough of Hackney, as he addressed the borough’s work with biofuels and electric vehicle technology in its aspiration to create a zero carbon fleet.

Hackney’s environmental strategy covers vehicle specifications, driver behaviour, routes and alternative fuels. For the last eight years, the focus has been on renewable Fame biodiesel. ‘But we see the future as electric and whilst we’ve introduced many electric cars and LCVs, we’re just not there yet for the heavy bus and truck side. Until EV is available for heavy-duty vehicles, we are looking to use a third generation renewable biofuel during the transition period.’

Fame biodiesel, explained Norman, is an alternative fuel derived from feed stocks such as rapeseed or soya bean, and uses methanol as a catalyst. Hackney uses waste cooking oil instead of virgin feed stocks, specified to EN16709 for B20/30 and EN 14214 for 100% biodiesel. ‘I also specify that it should be free of tallow and animal fats because this is what can cause it to solidify in cold weather.’

Hackney has operated on biodiesel successfully for many years. In the last financial year (2016/17), all Euro IV and V trucks ran on a 100% blend, saving 850t of CO2.

Fame biodiesel is cost effective, robust, requires minimal modification to vehicles and saves over 80% of CO2. Potentially more interesting, however, is HVO – hydro-treated vegetable oil. This is a third generation renewable biodiesel sometimes called synthetic biofuel that uses much the same feed stocks. It uses hydrogen as the catalyst and its chemical composition is virtually identical to fossil diesels, which means no vehicle modifications or extra maintenance. There are also no storage or warranty issues, it is widely accepted in the EU and US and delivers significant savings in CO2, particulate matter and up to 70% NOx, depending on drive cycle.

The downside is cost. HVO costs up to 30p per litre more than diesel. ‘However, if we can prove its emissions potential, it could be subsidised to make it comparable in cost to conventional diesel until it becomes established in the UK market.’

As good as HVO is, however, Norman believes the future for Hackney is electric, which is ideal for Hackney’s dense, localised traffic. The borough has received funding to improve its electric vehicle fleet and charging infrastructure. Electric vehicles – cars and small vans – currently account for 9% of Hackney’s fleet.

However, electric has not been without its issues. From a vehicle perspective these include mileage and load limitations, more expensive upfront costs and other unexpected costs, and a longer charging time than anticipated. From a charging infrastructure perspective, back office data remains the main obstacle. With no facility for mileage capture, back office data is almost useless for fleet purposes. And, as with all software systems, there are support and airtime charges. Additionally, intelligent charging points require a phone signal to communicate with the back office. If this is lost, vehicles can’t be connected or disconnected. If it is down long enough the units require rebooting, which could require attendance by a qualified electrician.

‘Another issue is where fleet management and facilities start to overlap,’ said Norman. ‘I assumed I would be responsible for our EV infrastructure, but because the chargers take power from buildings, facilities see it as their responsibility. This causes internal issues that could lead to an element of work being missed.’

Furthermore, technology is advancing at such a pace that it is hard to keep up with the knowledge required to install infrastructure. And, once installed, this will eventually become obsolete because vehicle and charging points need to communicate. 'If you replace your fleet two or three times during the life of the infrastructure, the vehicles could be too advanced for the charging points, so you may have to renew the software underpinning the infrastructure.’

Then there’s power. Hackney is already at the limits of its power supply at its main operating depot so more EVs would mean investing in a substation, which is very expensive.

Despite all this, however, Norman believes in electric and thinks that future developments will solve many of the current issues around battery size and weight, vehicle range, energy cost and storage. ‘We’ll get more from solar, recycled batteries from EVs could be used as household storage devices, and we will see the benefits of supply chain convergence. Even now, energy companies are talking to vehicle manufacturers about energy storage and the two-way transfer of energy from buildings to vehicle.’

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