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 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 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 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 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 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. 


This research was conducted by return loads platform Courier Exchange, pulling from sources including the International Energy Agency and the World Bank.

The UK delivery market is booming, thanks largely to the rapid growth of the ecommerce market, which tripled in size between 2015 and 2021. 

To support ecommerce’s meteoric rise, the UK’s domestic courier, express and parcel (CEP) market is set for a 7% compound annual growth rate in the next five years. The picture for EU nations is similar, with the EU’s overall parcel market expanding by 70% from 2015 to 2020.

The delivery industry is now having to innovate and introduce new technology to keep up with demand from the sectors that rely upon it. At the same time, governments everywhere are setting ambitious sustainability goals to bring greenhouse gas emissions down.

With this in mind, we at Courier Exchange decided to examine which European countries are set to be the biggest delivery innovators. We analysed which nations have the most potential to advance their road delivery services, based on the infrastructure currently in place and their readiness to advance further.

How we did it 

We analysed data on European countries’ performance against the following metrics:

This data was all readily available and came from sources such as the International Energy Agency, World Bank and government websites for each country. We removed San Marino, Andorra, Belarus and Liechtenstein from the final rankings due to a lack of available data.

We compiled the data into an index and assigned a score for various criteria to produce an overall score. The higher a country’s rank, the better placed it is to be a leader in delivery innovation.

The Netherlands comes top, with the highest scores for charging points available and  transport infrastructure, and scoring well for other metrics too. One initiative in the Netherlands is parcel delivery service DPD moving to become carbon-neutral in the country’s 30 biggest cities.

Germany is close behind the Netherlands in second place, scoring more when it comes to the capacity for innovation and the number of electric vehicles. Following in third place is France, which scores highly for the quality of its road and transport infrastructure.

The UK comes fifth, above Sweden, Spain and Belgium. In terms of automated vehicles (AVs), it’s ahead of every European country apart from Germany. The UK and Germany both have legislation in place allowing people to drive AVs with significant restrictions. While every other country either has no legislation in development or is still at the testing stage.

At the foot of the index are Iceland, Greece and Poland, which score less than half what the top-ranked countries do.

Research from mobile computer developer Scandit revealed that different parts of Europe are dealing with different challenges and following varying investment priorities. For example, 43% of delivery companies in eastern Europe and Nordic countries are focusing on new apps and features. In southern Europe, by contrast, just 5% of companies are looking to produce new apps and functionality.

Luke Davies, Commercial Director at Courier Exchange, says:

“Demand for delivery services is showing no signs of slowing down, so to keep up, the sector will need to find efficiencies where it can. Innovation will play a huge role in achieving this and innovation will come in many guises.

“We’re certain to see drones and automated vehicles delivering packages in the coming years. And electric vehicles will, of course, be central to the future of the industry, particularly as the Ukraine war rumbles on and keeps fuel prices high.

“But there will also be plentiful change behind the scenes, in areas away from public view. For example, companies will increasingly lean on artificial intelligence to uncover ways of streamlining processes. The internet of things will feed data into AI systems, allowing for closer tracking of goods and better insight into traffic patterns. And AI will take over more and more processes and decisions.

“It’s vital that the delivery sector embraces technology and adapts, particularly when customers have become so used to convenience and speedy delivery. Customers are also demanding that the goods they buy are sustainable, at every stage of the supply chain.

“What’s encouraging is that so many European nations are well-positioned when it comes to innovation. Just how ready they are varies from territory to territory, but the overall picture is promising and once innovative practices become the norm – and are seen to be successful – other countries will introduce them.”


The European Delivery Innovator Index analysed metrics associated with progress in the courier industry, to suggest which countries are best placed to support innovation in the delivery market.

San Marino, Andorra, Belarus and Liechtenstein were excluded from the final ranking due to a lack of available data.

Six categories were used to analyse each country:

Each factor was given a score to find the overall ranking. All data is normalised to a 0-100 scale, with the country closest to a score of 100 considered to have the most potential for delivery innovation. 

While this research is not exhaustive, we’ve selected relevant metrics and conducted the research as thoroughly as possible.


Number of charging stations per electric vehicle (EV)

Capacity for innovation

Transport infrastructure

Road quality

Government legislation for autonomous vehicle

As the courier industry is growing with soaring demand, how is the industry adapting to increased pressure and can more be done to support those working in it?

In the wake of Brexit and with fuel prices reaching record highs, the logistics industry is experiencing unprecedented demand nationwide. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of business premises used for transport, logistics and warehousing in the UK has almost doubled in the last decade. A recent report from Mordor Intelligence found that parcel volume recently grew by 33%, year-on-year, reaching 5 billion in 2020, up from 3.8 billion in 2019.

As the UK’s leading return loads platform for self-employed courier professionals, we wanted to discover how those working in the industry are handling the workloads that come with growth – and the added pressure it brings. We asked 287 courier drivers and companies for their insights into everyday pressures, health & safety at work and work-life balance. We also asked businesses about their current priorities as the industry sees surging demand and they navigate through turbulent economic times.

The survey revealed that despite there being various obstacles for couriers and firms, they can be overcome with the right support.

Key findings

How has the courier industry changed in recent years?

Unsurprisingly, as the country confined itself at home, the demand for deliveries surged. Half (51%) of the courier companies who took our survey said they deliver more parcels now than they did prior to Covid-19. According to the ONS, the proportion of UK retail sales taking place on the internet has risen by 51% over the last four years.

At the same time, the industry is coming under pressure from several angles, including staff shortages, government regulatory changes and higher costs. 

As with many industries in recent years, increased demand has affected those working in the sector – half of all courier employees said that pressure caused them excessive stress or had a negative impact on their mental health. Almost two-thirds (61%) of business owners were affected by mental health issues, compared to 46% of self-employed drivers: pressure is having an impact at all levels in the courier industry.

Away from the clear health implications, this has impacted many companies’ bottom line. 57% of courier companies have noticed that higher levels of driver pressure have indirectly impacted company profits. These firms hope that they can help to alleviate some of these strains and see a corresponding uptick in their figures.

Courier businesses feeling the squeeze of rising costs

To understand where support is needed most in the courier industry, we asked drivers and companies which issues were most likely to jeopardise the commercial viability of their businesses/jobs. Unsurprisingly, 90% feared the impact of rising fuel prices, and almost three-quarters (72%) cited increased costs of operating.

Challenges are also posed by government clean air initiatives, according to around a third of respondents. Not only are a growing number of UK cities introducing low emission or clean air zones, but some are also widening these zones and/or charging more to travel through them. The expansion of such initiatives is another rising cost companies are experiencing.

How are industry pressures impacting couriers on the ground?

Our study highlights the increased demands that have been placed on couriers – 85% of couriers state that (over the last two years) they’ve regularly experienced excessive physical demands on the job. Raising awareness of challenging aspects of the job is key to making them – and couriers’ work-life balance – more manageable.

With demand for courier services so high, a quarter of the couriers we surveyed have regularly worked six-day weeks in the last couple of years. If drivers are to take advantage of this rocketing demand, they need greater support. Half (56%) of couriers regularly missed a lunch break and over a third (36%) have slept in their vehicles.

Sometimes, the demands couriers face become unacceptable. Almost 1 in 5 (18%) have been physically or verbally assaulted by a customer, and 7% have even had a customer chase their vehicle.

How can pressure be relieved?

Overwhelmingly, couriers believe that driver pressure could be lessened if customers understood the strain they’re put under. Almost half (47%) of the drivers surveyed thought customers’ perceptions were key, while others saw issues with client expectations, delivery options and mental health support.

Among self-employed drivers, almost two-thirds (63%) said improved legislation for self-employed people would lead to less pressure.

Improving collaboration and understanding between industries is key

Amid continuing supply chain problems in the UK, courier companies are sometimes struggling to meet demand. Some are even reluctant to work with certain industries, who they’ve found put more pressure on their delivery service. The industries couriers identified as putting most pressure on them are:

Logistics is closely entwined with other industries, with supply chain issues affecting every sector when they occur. Enhanced understanding and support between sectors is, therefore, essential in overcoming the economic obstacles and external pressures so many businesses are currently experiencing.

What do self-employed drivers currently see as the biggest risks to health & safety?

Two in five drivers (41%) saw smart motorways and the removal of hard shoulders as a significant danger. While a similar proportion (37%) viewed long journeys with insufficient breaks as a serious problem.

A quarter (27%) believe excessive stress and workplace pressure is a real risk to their wellbeing and, as the survey has highlighted, there are various triggers that cause drivers stress.

Another consideration is time spent alone on the job, which will clearly have a mental health impact. One in five (21%) drivers are concerned about the solitary nature of the role.

Uncovering driver concerns is the first step towards alleviating such stresses. The government can also help by implementing extra safety measures and rest areas for drivers.

How have political and regulatory changes impacted the courier industry?

The courier industry continues to navigate through the political and regulatory impacts of the Brexit transition.

The impact of Brexit

In addition to all the other issues they face, 15% of self-employed drivers said Brexit regulations and associated industry changes regularly put pressure on their operations. One out of 10 drivers even highlighted changing driver regulations as the greatest risk to drivers’ health & safety in 2022.

Some 16% of all drivers and companies said Brexit regulations are threatening the very commercial viability of their work. Also, 9% of couriers say the new EU cabotage rules will put serious pressure on their work, affecting their job security or the future of their company. 

What’s certain is that the vast majority of companies are narrowing their focus to the UK: expanding operations in the EU is a priority for just 5% of them.

How prepared are courier companies for new cabotage rules?

One of the biggest challenges courier companies and drivers face is changing cabotage rules. As of May 2022, even courier drivers taking goods to the EU must have a community licence and fulfil various requirements, meaning more Brexit bureaucracy. According to our survey, 63% believe they’ll be impacted.

Yet almost a quarter (24%) of courier businesses don’t understand the new cabotage rules and aren’t prepared for their implementation. Only 5% of those that understand the rules think they won’t be impacted.

Where are courier companies focusing their efforts?

In an industry that’s developing quickly and increasingly embracing new technology, courier companies are looking to the future and expansion opportunities. Despite the industry growth, there are a section of couriers looking to pivot their business model in response to a shifting market landscape. These are companies’ primary objectives:

Reacting to staffing challenges in the past two years, two-thirds (66%) of businesses have implemented some kind of measure to attract staff. This is how they’ve done it:

Almaz Cleary, sales manager at Courier Exchange, says:

“During Covid-19 lockdowns, delivery drivers were rightly recognised as essential workers, with the country realising just how important they are to modern living. It’s been an incredibly tough two years for them, work-wise, with workloads heavier than ever and Brexit just one of the factors complicating their everyday routines.

“What we’re seeing in this survey is the far-reaching nature of the pressures. However, identifying and understanding them is key to progress being made.

“It’s also great that so many companies are looking to technology as a way to help with everyday stresses. We are committed to building technology that has a pivotal part to play in alleviating supply chain pressures. Digital transformation is how the industry will grow and prosper even further.”

What’s happening?

Drivers moving goods from the UK to the EU, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland will soon need a  ‘standard international goods vehicle operator licence’ to transport goods commercially.

When do the rules begin?

The new rules begin on Saturday 21st May 2022.

Who’s affected?

You’re affected if you 

What’s a ‘maximum authorised mass’?

A maximum authorised mass is the weight of a vehicle or trailer plus the maximum load it can safely carry.

What’s a ‘gross train weight’?

A gross train weight is similar to a maximum authorised mass. It’s the total weight of a tractor unit, plus its trailer, plus the trailer’s maximum safe load.

How do I see affected loads in Courier Exchange?

Just look for a ‘Euro Load’ link on the Quotes screen.

This affects me. How do I comply?

You can either:

How do I apply for a new licence?

You can apply for a new licence here.

How long before my licence is granted?

It can take ​​up to 9 weeks to issue a licence following an application. If you need a licence sooner, you can apply for an interim licence when you apply for a full licence.

(Please note: application success is not guaranteed.)

How much do licences cost?

Licence applications cost £257 and, if successful, licences cost a further £401. A continuation fee of £401 applies every five years thereafter.

Where can I find out more?

You can find out more via the UK government’s website.