Alternative fuels: explained

This guide was put together by outbound and return loads platform Courier Exchange.

Emissions from petrol and diesel vehicles are a significant source of the world’s air pollution, which is why many drivers are looking into alternative fuel sources to reduce their carbon footprint. With the UK government’s Net Zero Strategy, reducing fuel emissions is on the agenda as it becomes a target to decarbonise all sectors of the UK economy by 2050.

As a result, alternative fuels are rising in popularity. These are fuels other than petroleum or diesel that can power vehicles but have a lower carbon footprint. We break down six alternative fuels for vehicles to determine which are the best options for the environment.

Electricity

Electricity is one of the most widely known alternative fuels among consumers as it powers plug-in electric vehicles, which are becoming increasingly prevalent. We’re seeing a rising trend in the popularity of electric cars; in May 2022, new electric vehicle registrations rose by 17.7%, representing one in eight new cars joining the road. 

Whilst electric vehicles are growing in popularity, battery efficiency remains limited. This means that an electric vehicle may not run for as long as petrol or diesel, and can take several hours to recharge, which poses an issue for electric vans for courier companies that carry out longer journeys. However, a great alternative is hybrid vehicles, powered by both electricity and petrol/diesel, which boosts efficiency. 

Running an electric vehicle produces no tailpipe emissions but greenhouse gases may be emitted from the power plants that produce the parts for the vehicle, electricity is also largely still produced using fossil fuels. Despite this, a new electric car has just a third of the lifetime greenhouse gas emissions of a new petrol car.

It’s typically cheaper to fuel a vehicle with electricity than petrol or diesel, but the vehicles themselves tend to be more expensive to purchase. However, recent industry estimates have found that an electric vehicle can save £176 in running costs for every 1,000 miles driven versus a petrol or diesel-powered vehicle.

Hydrogen

Hydrogen is a promising emission-free alternative fuel that’s produced from domestic resources for use in combustion engines. One of the key benefits of hydrogen as an alternative fuel is that it removes the long charging times that electric vehicles face. Instead, hydrogen-powered vehicles can be refilled as quickly as petrol or diesel. Due to this, hydrogen is being considered a viable alternative fuel for planes, trains and automobiles, as well as the industrial sector.

Hydrogen vans produce no harmful emissions on the road, only water. The elimination of charging waiting times makes it a very promising alternative fuel for the future, with a view to ending the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. This also makes hydrogen a much more realistic alternative fuel for the courier industry. Whilst the UK doesn’t currently have the infrastructure to make widespread hydrogen adoption likely, the government has kick-started a hydrogen economy plan which aims to unlock £4 billion investment by 2030:

“By 2030, we envisage hydrogen to be in use across a range of transport modes, including HGVs, buses and rail, along with early stage uses in commercial shipping and aviation.” – Gov.UK UK hydrogen strategy

Due to the limited practical availability of hydrogen-powered vehicles in the UK, it’s currently very expensive to buy and run one of these vehicles, making them more costly to run than electric vans. 

Biodiesel

Biodiesel is a renewable alternative fuel that can be manufactured from vegetable oils, animal fats, or recycled cooking grease. It can be used to power diesel vehicles. It works similarly to conventional diesel, with the same mileage per tank, but is produced from renewable sources and is, therefore, better for the environment. Most biodiesel is currently produced from waste vegetable oil sourced from restaurants, chip shops and industrial food producers, with some fast food restaurants using their own cooking oil to power their vehicles.

The significant environmental benefit of biodiesel is that it can be described as “carbon neutral” because when the oil crop grows it absorbs the same amount of CO2 as is released when the fuel combusts. However, this isn’t completely accurate as other processes in production cause pollution. Another benefit to biodiesel is that it’s rapidly biodegradable and non-toxic. This means biodiesel spillages are far less dangerous than diesel equivalents.

There is variation in the quality of biodiesel, as it’s not produced on a wide scale. It’s also important to note that biodiesel is more expensive than regular diesel; it’s been found that biofuel adds at least £8.80 to a full tank of diesel in a family car.

Ethanol

Ethanol is a widely used renewable fuel made from corn and other plant material. It’s commonly blended with regular petrol, such as the E10 petrol which is 10% renewable ethanol and 90% regular unleaded. However, it can be used on its own, but blending does still help vans reduce their emissions.

Whilst the combustion of ethanol does release carbon dioxide, this is offset by the carbon dioxide captured when crops are grown to produce ethanol. Greenhouse gas emissions are reduced on average by 40% with corn-based ethanol produced from dry mills. On the other hand, it does require a lot of land to grow the crops required for ethanol production on a large scale.

Ethanol fuel is cost-effective compared to other biofuels because many countries have the capacity to produce it: corn, sugar cane or grain grows in almost every country. This makes it easily accessible for a large number of vehicles and industries.

Natural gas

Natural gas is a gaseous fuel that’s predominantly made from methane. As the name suggests, natural gas is naturally formed on the earth. This alternative fuel can come as compressed natural gas or liquefied natural gas. Natural gas has been proven to be a reliable source of fuel, however it still only makes up a small portion of transportation fuel. Natural gas-fuelled vehicles produce significantly less CO2 than petrol vehicles, and similar (or slightly less) CO2 than diesel vehicles.

A large portion of natural gas is still considered a fossil fuel because it’s made from methane formed over millions of years by the action of heat and pressure on organic materials. You can find entirely Renewable Natural Gas (RNG), but this could be more costly. 

Natural gas is significantly cheaper than petrol and diesel fuel, however natural gas-powered vehicles are yet to gain popularity.

Propane

Propane is a readily available gaseous fuel that has been widely used in vehicles for decades. It’s most commonly known as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and is often used to power forklifts, skid steers, buses and other public transit vehicles, as well as wider industrial processes. Propane fuel has a high level of energy per gallon, meaning propane-powered vehicles can travel further, making it a popular choice amongst vans and couriers. Currently, there’s an issue with limited filling stations offering propane fuel, which can mean those living in rural areas struggle to fuel vehicles with LPG.

The environmental benefits of propane fuel are clear. It has clean burning properties, producing 99% fewer particulate emissions compared to petroleum and diesel. In fact, it produces next-to zero greenhouse gas emissions or air pollutants.

Propane is the least expensive alternative fuel, coming in significantly cheaper than petrol, meaning money can be saved on fuel costs. It does cost money to convert your vehicle but you can buy propane vehicle conversion kits, making it easier and cheaper than buying a propane-ready vehicle.

No alternative fuel comes without its shortcomings but these are constantly being addressed, making environmentally-friendly fuels much more accessible than they once were. With the government’s plan to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030, finding efficient and affordable alternative fuels is more important than ever. 

Sources

https://heycar.co.uk/blog/electric-cars-statistics-and-projections

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/common-misconceptions-about-electric-vehicles/common-misconceptions-about-electric-vehicles

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-government-launches-plan-for-a-world-leading-hydrogen-economy

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-government-launches-plan-for-a-world-leading-hydrogen-economy

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/06/30/green-fuels-adding-almost-10-cost-filling-family-car/

https://afdc.energy.gov/fuels/ethanol_benefits.html

The article was published on . It was updated on 8 May 2024 to make it more relevant and comprehensive.


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