The bio-energy sector has a key role to play in the further decarbonisation of Britain’s food and beverage sector. With the appointment of Claire Perry as Minister of State for Climate Change, can we expect greater support from a previously rather non-committal government for the use of on-site bio-energy plants to improve resource use and boost low-carbon manufacturing?
Post-Brexit, industrial policy should favour creating green engineering jobs here rather than elsewhere in Europe. Also, the economic contribution of British bio-energy companies, through job creation, growth potential and future exports, must help shape industrial policy now Ministers are no longer constrained by EU rules that prevented them from favouring national interests.
Extracting value from unwanted residues and decentralised energy supplies should be part of the UK’s industrial strategy and the “clean growth plan” due to be published in the autumn. This should include helping SMEs with incentives for on-site energy and funding projects that showcase British technology.
The food industry is increasingly aware of the need to improve resource use and its impact on the environment. Converting process residues into bio-energy helps reduce energy and residue disposal costs. The next step is replacing fossil fuels used in distribution of food products from farm to factory and from there to the consumer.
Demand for diesel for product distribution is increasing despite public concern about its health and environmental impact. While electric cars are increasingly popular, electric power does not meet the requirements of the Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) sector.
There is a better solution: our recent report shows how biomethane (pure methane) can be an alternative HGV fuel, with food factories of the future generating bioenergy for product transport. Under mounting social, political and environmental pressure, engineers have already developed gas-powered truck engines. Biomethane provides a lower carbon alternative to compressed or liquefied natural gas (CNG or LNG) already being used by companies like Arla and Waitrose.
So how can policymakers support this? Government efforts to decarbonise transport under the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) must be extended and address the barriers to change such as higher engine costs or lack of gas re-fuelling points.
The RTFO must include biomethane among the proposed low carbon development fuels and ensure that the flexibility of biogas is more widely recognised in a more supportive fiscal regime that could include enhanced capital allowances for non-fossil fuel engines or a VAT exemption for trucks that run on low carbon fuels.
We would also like to see government support for industrial trials to back up the conclusions of our report that on-site production and supply of compressed or liquefied biomethane (CBM and LBM) is commercially viable as HGV fuel. Key conclusions from our report were:
- The technology is available for small-scale production and supply of CBM and LBM.
- Gas-based fuels offer a low-carbon replacement for diesel in commercial vehicles.
- GHG emission reduction targets will encourage wider adoption of low carbon fuels.
- Barriers to change such as vehicle costs and performance are being addressed.
- Payback potential will improve as diesel prices continue to increase.
There is a clear opportunity for the food industry to lead the way. For example with applications like milk collection from farms, which could in future be powered by biogas generated from dairy residues. The Department for Transport (DfT) has set up a competition to support development and use of low carbon vehicles. This is an exciting step in the right direction. Britain’s agri-food sector should participate in such efforts to decarbonise the transport sector for its products.