If we want carbon capture to work, we urgently need to value putting carbon back in the ground – or crazy stuff like this happens…

There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of hype, and a lot of money floating around to do interesting things with renewable power, carbon, and especially hydrogen. And I think it’s sending some project developers a little crazy. Here’s an example:

‘HydrogenInsight’ recently published an interview with Thomas Zirngibl of Koppo Energia Oy, a Finnish company (link below). Thomas seems like a nice enough chap, and admittedly, he recognises that what they’re doing is a bit crazy – the headline is, ‘This is why we’re producing e-methane from green hydrogen, even though it’s so inefficient’. Having read what he’s planning, I think someone needs to explain to Thomas the difference between ‘inefficient’ and ‘worse than pointless’. See what you think.

Koppo Energia will build a large green hydrogen production facility on Finland’s west coast, with a 200MW electrolyser powered by 500MW of offshore wind and 100MW of solar. But, they need a market for all that hydrogen, which means moving it. In future, conversion to ammonia would make sense, but there are no buyers yet. So, they’re going to combine it with captured CO2 trucked in from another plant, make e-methane, then liquefy that methane and truck it down to Germany to fuel LNG-powered trucks.

Just think about that for a moment… The starting point is that a plant has captured the CO2 it emits. Energy is then used to truck those carbon atoms to a second plant. More energy is used to purify water, more to electrolyse that water to hydrogen, more still to combine that hydrogen with the carbon, even more to liquefy the resulting methane, and a final amount to truck that methane to Germany, where it is burned in the engine of a truck – turning it back into CO2 which is released to the atmosphere.

The outcome of this whole process in carbon terms is exactly the same as if the CO2 captured at the original plant in Finland was simply injected into an oil well or sequestered in some other way. That sequestration would achieve exactly the same CO2 reduction as using those carbon atoms to replace German truck fuel, and I would be willing to bet at far less cost?

Plus, you could do something else with all that wind and solar power, and the money you invested in the electrolyser. If you want a load of kit, you could invest in another Direct Air Capture plant like the one in Iceland, and use all that power to lock up even more CO2 from the atmosphere directly – OK it’s not very efficient either, but again, probably makes more sense than what Thomas is planning, and would certainly mitigate more CO2 overall.

 On reading about this plan, the question has to be, how did we arrive at a point where anyone would think this is a plan worth spending money on? I assume some pretty detailed financial modelling has been done, and the investors aren’t stupid, so this scheme suggests a couple of things are going on.

Firstly, it seems likely that the current systems of grants and subsidies in Finland and Germany are overly eager to promote hydrogen and/or recycled carbon fuels, and are being ‘gamed’. That sort of market distortion is not uncommon where multiple stakeholders are finding different mechanisms to promote new technologies.

Second, and more importantly to my mind, the Finnish plant at the start of the process is apparently unable to get a decent price to bury its CO2 emissions. With all the talk of carbon sequestration in the context of BECCS and ‘Blue Hydrogen’, it does not bode well to see an example of a plant that has gone to the trouble of capturing its CO2, but isn’t taking the simplest route to put those carbon atoms back in the ground.

BECCS – BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage


Could battery swapping prove to be the solution to decarbonising trucks?

If you’ve been following the debate around how to decarbonise our heaviest vehicles, you’ll be aware that it’s essentially been a three-horse race. Out in front are battery trucks, with megawatt chargers soon to give them a boost. Close behind are hydrogen fuel cell trucks, accompanied by all the heated arguments that hydrogen always seems to generate. And the outside bet is still ‘electric road systems’, i.e. pantograph trucks with overhead wires on key stretches of motorway.

Fuso eCanter on Ample battery swap station. Image source: Ample, 2023

Well, it seems we have a late entrant which might just have the potential to pull off a surprise win – battery swapping. A company called Ample this week announced a partnership with Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation to trial its battery swap technology with the Fuso eCanter truck in Japan.

For those not familiar, battery swapping has a bit of a chequered history. The idea is really old, first proposed in 1896 it was used successfully for electric trucks in the US from 1910 to 1924 and has been used for forklifts worldwide since the 1940s. However, for modern EVs the concept fell out of favour almost exactly a decade ago with the huge failure of battery swap company Better Place. CEO Shai Agassi convinced investors to part with $700 million as of 2011, but in 2013 the company filed for bankruptcy amid allegations of wasteful spending and financial mismanagement.

Since the failure of Better Place, battery swapping has had a very low profile, but with some uses particularly in China. However, with Ample raising over $160 million in funding and multiple plaudits in the press, it seems that maybe investors are ready to take another serious look at the idea.

So what are the pros and cons? The reason it was first in operation over a century ago is obvious – swap the battery and you can effectively recharge your vehicle in minutes. The other big plus, which is more pertinent today, is that the actual recharging can be managed over many hours, reducing peak energy demand at recharging locations. That’s much easier to manage than hooking up megawatt fast chargers, and could be integrated more easily with nearby wind or solar.

And the downsides? Well, there are two main drawbacks. The easier one to manage is technical – the swap stations need to be automated, which requires complex robotics, and there’s some risk of damage to the expensive battery packs. It won’t be easy, but it’s certainly not impossible, more a question of how cheaply it can be done to the required standard.

The tougher problem is persuading multiple vehicle manufacturers to standardise their battery packs, and their location in the vehicle. Personally, I think the odds of success are higher for trucks than cars. There are fewer truck manufacturers and fewer models, the vehicle architecture is more standardised and batteries are often located in an easy to access part of the chassis between the wheels. And the range problem is bigger for trucks, so there is just a greater incentive to find a novel solution – manufacturers have already formed alliances to develop megawatt charging and hydrogen refuelling.

As things stand, Ample seem to be focused on the car market, which is understandable from the point of view of attracting investors. Most car brands are part of large multi-brand groups, often sharing common architecture for their EVs, so it’s not impossible they may try battery swapping – especially in America. However, as EV range and charge-point availability are rapidly increasing, the niche for battery swapping (and fuel cells) in cars is rapidly shrinking. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to either, (a) see Ample pivot to focus on heavy commercial vehicles, or, (b) see a new commercial vehicle battery swapping company pop up. They will have to come from behind, but I think the competition to power long range heavy vehicles may soon be a four horse race.

What are the implications if ‘white hydrogen’ isn’t a white elephant?

So you’ve probably heard of grey, blue and green hydrogen – I won’t explain here, if you haven’t then google it and then come back. But as of the last few days, you may also have heard of ‘white’ hydrogen (also sometimes called ‘gold’ hydrogen). I first came across the idea earlier this year, and I’ve been meaning to write about it, but this week it hit the mainstream with a piece in the Telegraph.

White hydrogen is hydrogen that forms naturally in the rocks under our feet, like oil (although by a different process, and in different rocks). And some reliable sources (like the US Geological Survey) have estimated that there may be a lot more of it than anyone had previously guessed – enough to entirely replace the fossil fuel industry with hydrogen that we can extract at about the same cost as those same fossil fuels.

If you’re like me, and most other commentators, your immediate reaction is, that sounds too good to be true, because surely we couldn’t have missed something that big? Right? Well, I’ve linked to some other sources below, but to summarise:

  • People have noticed seepages of hydrogen from rocks all over the world for a long time. The same was true of oil for hundreds of years before anyone thought of developing it.
  • Hydrogen forms in completely different rocks to oil, so we haven’t looked in the right places at all.
  • People prospecting for oil (and other things) just haven’t been testing for hydrogen.

So, it is possible that vast reservoirs of naturally occurring hydrogen exist under our feet and haven’t been found. Surprisingly little of the earth has been comprehensively geologically mapped.

One key thing about white hydrogen is that it is continuously being formed, mainly by water reacting with certain types of rock. That means that if/when a reservoir is tapped, it may well keep producing forever, as unlike oil the hydrogen is continuously replenished. In fact there is the tantalising prospect of a win-win-win – pumping water and carbon dioxide down a hydrogen well, where the CO2 reacts to form rock, some of the water creates fresh hydrogen, and the rest of the water is heated. The heated water and hydrogen then circulate back up, providing geothermal and hydrogen energy.

Of course it’s impossible to know at this point how much H2 might be economically recoverable, and how long this industry might take to develop. But there is the chance it could happen quite quickly – after all, we have a load of highly capitalised global companies specialised in this type of thing, that we’re currently telling to abandon their primary product.

What would be the implications is we could suddenly produce as much hydrogen as we could use, at a cost per unit of energy comparable to oil? A major worry is that even considering that question might lead to a stalling of current efforts to decarbonise using existing technology. However, I think that’s unlikely – even if we find huge amounts of white hydrogen, it will still mainly dovetail with wider efforts at electrification, we’ll just have more fuel cells and fewer batteries.

The fuel cell industry will be a massive winner, as the economics of fuel cells vs bigger batteries will win out for more vehicles. Efforts to decarbonise current industry with hydrogen will get a huge boost – primarily fertiliser, but also steel and chemicals. And it will make decarbonising shipping with ammonia as a fuel far more attractive. Electrolysis may be a big loser, but then again maybe not – hydrogen will still be hard to transport, and if the use of hydrogen becomes far more widespread, then there may well be interest in producing it by electrolysis in locations further from hydrogen wells.

Then of course we have to consider the possibility of leaks, and whether hydrogen is itself a pollutant? Hydrogen is not itself a greenhouse gas, and it doesn’t last long in the atmosphere, but it does increase climate heating by prolonging the life of methane in the atmosphere, and its effects on ozone. However, some useful work has been done on this by the UK government, which concluded that since some hydrogen is created by the burning of fossil fuels anyway, the amount likely to leak in a hydrogen economy would be less than the reduction in hydrogen from the fossil fuels we would have burned instead. Still, leaks would need to be closely regulated from day one if drilling for hydrogen takes off.

Overall, this may sound a little far fetched, but I think it’s something that everyone in the transport and energy space needs to keep a close eye on. It’s just possible that ten years from now the energy economy could look very different from any of the current predictions.




If we want to keep the EV momentum going, it’s time to make small cars cool again

In the world of EV sales, things are shaping up for a showdown between market forces and, well, common sense.

On the side of common sense, authorities in Paris have declared war on ‘auto-besity’, and are going to introduce parking fees that get progressively higher based on the weight and size of vehicles. Deputy mayor David Belliard said SUVs were incongruous in an urban environment. “There are no dirt paths, no mountain roads … SUVs are absolutely useless in Paris. Worse, they are dangerous, cumbersome and use too many resources to manufacture.”

Unfortunately, the higher charges in Paris won’t apply to electric SUVs. Which is a shame, because the market forces that have pushed ICE vehicles towards SUVs seem to be having an even greater effect on the EV market, where an ever higher proportion of the models on offer are SUVs and ‘crossovers’.

The trend towards heavier vehicles started in the US as a way for manufacturers to avoid stricter air quality regulations that did not apply to ‘light trucks’. But it continues on the logic that big vehicles don’t cost that much more to make than small ones, but consumers will accept a proportionally bigger price mark-up. As manufacturers switch over to EVs, with expensive batteries, it’s easier to lose that extra cost in a big luxury vehicle which has a larger profit margin to start with.

Still – does a trend towards bigger cars matter, if they’re electric? Well, yes, for a lot of reasons, but three in particular – equality, efficiency and liveability.

First, equality. A few years ago I fully expected the switch to EVs to reverse the trend towards SUVs, as the desire for greater range would push consumers towards lighter vehicles. Instead, manufacturers have doubled down on size and found they have more space for giant battery packs, which have come down in price to levels which are ‘affordable’, at least in the higher end of the market. But where does that leave ‘mass market’ adoption?

Big, heavy EVs won’t be cheap for a long time (if ever) because they need lots of batteries. If that’s all that European manufacturers want to make, then one of two things will happen. Either the rollout of EVs will stall, and leave the majority of consumers with no option but to stick with ICEs (and you could be forgiven for thinking this has happened if you read the current backlash in the press). Or, more likely, Chinese companies will fill the void and eat their lunch.

Second, efficiency. We are heading for a 100% renewable grid – but we’re not there yet. And don’t forget, we have to switch most of our heating to electricity, which will need a lot more renewables, and that’s predicted to keep the price of electricity high for years. So if your electric car is twice as heavy as it needs to be, and uses twice as much energy, then the extra power you use is adding to demand and slowing our progress towards getting rid of fossil fuels and bringing prices down. (And don’t forget that it’s also taken more energy to build it.)

Efficiency matters – comparing like-with-like, EVs beat ICE. But as of now, smaller, lighter petrol cars still have a smaller environmental footprint than bigger, heavier EVs.

Finally, liveability. More SUVs make it harder to get people to cycle and walk, because they take up more road space and are more likely to kill people in collisions. And they need bigger parking spaces, accelerating the trend to tarmac over more of our urban space, exacerbating flash flooding and the heat island effect.

So, what’s the answer? I think it’s high time to make small cars cool again. I don’t know what they’ll do in America, where their icons are the Hummer and the F150 pick-up, but we’re European. The re-launch of the Fiat 500 was a great success a few years ago, as was the new Mini (even though it’s admittedly a lot bigger than the old Mini).

Our automotive industry has a great history of making small cars profitable, and cool. The ‘European dream’ if there is one, is zipping from a pavement café to the beach, parking in a space not much bigger than a picnic blanket at either end. Michael Caine didn’t need an SUV to transport his gold bullion, ‘Nicole’ and ‘Papa’ didn’t need to impress with a Chelsea tractor. It’s time for the electric revolution to give us new cars that are small but iconic.




Is electrification already pushing European truck OEMs to change their business model?

Last Thursday was ‘truck decarbonisation day’ at the Road Transport Expo, and very interesting it was too. I could write about any number of topics that came up, but I’ll start by joining a few dots to point to what’s shaping up to be a significant change in the business models for truck manufacturers.

Like many in the audience, I was particularly struck by a comment from Harry Campey, of hauliers Campey’s of Selby. This small family firm is showing real leadership as an early adopter of electric trucks, and in his presentation Harry included the interesting detail that they had decided to risk taking their DAF electric truck without an R&M contract. Based on his own experience of driving a Tesla, Harry had concluded that EVs just wouldn’t need enough maintenance to make it worthwhile.

It’s an open secret in the automotive world that manufacturers don’t make great margins on the cars, or trucks, they sell. The majority of overall profits are actually made by the finance companies that loan you the money to buy, and the sale of parts and maintenance after the fact – with this latter being especially true for commercial vehicles. It’s early days to know for sure if electric trucks will need less maintenance, but based on the experience with cars few would bet against it.

What might fill the profits gap left by lower maintenance? Well, in the last few weeks Ford and GM have both struck deals with Tesla in the US to allow their customers to use the Tesla Supercharger network, making Tesla’s decision to invest in charging as well as cars look remarkably prescient. And late last year, four of the big European truck brands joined forces in the Mileance partnership, which is setting out to build the truck equivalent of the Supercharger network in Europe.

This could be the beginning of a pretty fundamental shift in the automotive world. Imagine if Henry Ford had also set out to own the distribution of petrol – that’s the model we may see for trucks, and possibly cars too if Tesla achieves the same success in Europe.

Shell and BP are certainly investing heavily in car charging networks, and with such a huge market they are unlikely to be edged out. Truck charging is still at an early stage though – will the vehicle manufacturers seek to make the sale of energy to power those trucks the revenue stream to replace maintenance? In January this year BP announced it was investing in six charging stations along a 600km stretch of the Rhine-Alpine corridor across Germany, so the oil companies won’t go down without a fight.

If the business model does shift, there’s also the question of where that leaves the dealer networks. One possibility is that electric trucks will be run for longer than diesel equivalents, with regular refurbishments to the cab, or drivetrain upgrades, throughout that longer life, which could be a lifeline for dealers.

There are certainly interesting times ahead…

Will autonomous vehicles have enough energy for all that thinking?

It doesn’t feel like thinking uses all that much energy, does it? If we want to lose weight, we’re told to go for a run, not play chess.

However, evolutionary biologists have pointed out that our current, oversize brains did not evolve until after we mastered the use of fire to cook our food. That’s because they use a surprising amount of calories. Our nearest primate cousins, with their raw food diets, simply don’t have enough hours in the day to eat and digest all the calories that it would take to support a human brain. Cooking means we can extract more calories from the same amount of food, more quickly.

Is the same true of electronic brains then? Well, there was a great story in the press recently about a swimming pool in Exmouth that is being heated with the waste heat from just a small part of a data centre. A data server the size of a washing machine is enough to heat the pool to 30C around 60% of the time. So yes, all those transistors may not look like they’re doing much, but they are using a huge amount of energy.

What might this mean for autonomous vehicles? It’s generally taken as a given that most autonomous vehicles will be electric, since that’s the way we’re going. And EVs already have a problem with energy storage. If the vehicle also has to do its own thinking, what might that do to its range?

I should credit the Emissions Analytics blog for first alerting me to this question. Back in 2020 they did a few ‘back of the envelope’ calculations, and came to the conclusion that a fully autonomous vehicle, with multiple sensing and processing systems, might use as much energy to do its sensing and ‘thinking’ as it needed to actually drive the wheels.

That, frankly astonishing, conclusion suggested this might be a bigger problem than one might think – even if Emissions Analytics’ calculations were a fair way out. At the time I wondered if any other evidence might back this up.

Then last year I went to visit some guys in a start-up based in Millbrook, called Hypermile AI. They were kind enough to take me around the Millbrook bowl in an HGV tractor unit that was basically being driven by a mobile phone. Their very clever kit combines with the truck’s cruise control to anticipate the movement of other vehicles much better than the usual crude adaptive cruise control algorithms, thus achieving fairly impressive fuel savings.

While we were chatting after the demonstration, I asked about the energy use of fully autonomous systems – could they be as energy hungry as Emissions Analytics had suggested. The reply – ‘absolutely’. That’s one of the reasons the Hypermile System only uses a single camera – as soon as multiple sensing systems need to be integrated into that type of system, the processing power (and associated energy use) increases exponentially. Anecdotally, they told me that many Tesla drivers report that when they are using full autopilot, the range of the vehicle drops by around 25%. (I checked this later, and found the Tesla owner forums are awash with discussions that absolutely back this up.)

Of course processors are constantly getting more efficient, and system designers will find things to optimise, but the scale of energy use would appear to be too big to ignore. This may be yet another argument for the real benefits to autonomous vehicles being found around level 4 (where sensing and ‘thinking’ can be streamlined to particular use cases) rather than level 5, where the AI needed to handle all those open-ended situations may need so much power that it destroys the business case.



Tiny data centre used to heat public swimming pool:


Could vehicle automation make carbon dioxide emissions and air quality worse?


Is it time to be more radical in rethinking rural buses?

I think the time is ripe for a really radical re-think of the way rural bus services operate, because of two new bits of technology that could be real game-changers. Let me set the scene first…

It’s not saying anything new or controversial to suggest that bus services in many rural areas are in a spiral of decline. Falling passenger numbers mean less revenue for the bus company, they cut back on the number of services, which makes the bus less attractive, passenger numbers fall further, and before long buses aren’t viable at all. The last service near me disappeared during Covid, never to return.

Of course with concerted effort some places are bucking the trend, and creating a virtuous spiral of increasing passenger numbers leading to improved services. A really good partnership between the local authority and the bus company is vital. Together they can put in bus priority measures at junctions so the bus is quicker than the car, provide attractive bus stops, offer integrated (often subsidised) fares, and invest in clean modern buses with wifi and phone charging. Doing all of these things, plus maybe using increased parking charges to subsidise buses, and setting up car clubs so more people can ditch a car altogether, can turn things around, and has in a few places.

But what if that’s just not enough? I’ve long had an idea for a more fundamental change, and a couple of things have come along that I think make it more likely to work – and definitely worth trying out as an experiment somewhere.

So, here’s my idea. Rural bus routes tend to go, literally, round the houses in order to serve multiple villages, feeding into the local town. This means they are much slower than driving, and infrequent (you’re lucky if a rural bus comes once per hour). What if, instead, the bus followed the main roads, bypassing the villages, allowing the same number of vehicles to deliver two or three services per hour, and completing the journey in a similar time to driving? Wouldn’t that be more likely to attract new passengers?

Well, yes, except how does anyone actually access the service? I have had this idea for many years now, and in the past I always thought it would be nice if people could access express buses like this by cycling to the bus stop – which works for me because I’m a keen cyclist. In fact, when I lived in Oxford this is what I would often do – express coaches go from Oxford to London several times per hour, and I would cycle to a coach stop and hop on (it was even possible to take my bike on the coach if I wanted). But as a wider solution it would clearly exclude the many people unwilling, or unable, to cycle to a bus stop.

So what’s changed? E-mobility, and apps, two things everyone is crazy about right now.

E-mobility puts the trip to the bus stop in everyone’s reach. Put a docking station for e-bikes and e-scooters in the centre of every village, with a quality, paved, off-road mixed-use path running out to the express bus-stop. At the bus stop itself, quality cycle parking, another docking station, and a drop-off area of car parking too (as a parent I’d rather drive my kids to a bus stop than the whole journey). And of course, an electronic sign giving a real-time readout of when the next bus will arrive.

The final piece of the puzzle, a travel planning app that can actually cope with multi-modal journeys. I use Google maps all the time – its cycling directions have got really good, and its public transport directions combine bus, train and walking perfectly. But it still can’t cope with the idea that I could cycle to a station or bus stop, often cutting journey time significantly. Create an app that lets you tell it you’re willing to cycle, or scoot, a certain distance to a bus stop, either on your own bike/scooter or hiring. Better still work with google to integrate this capability into their directions. And if possible include the ability to pay for the whole journey right inside the app, and just tap your phone at the docking stations and as you get on the bus. Please do let me know your thoughts in the comments, I love this idea but I’m not in the bus industry so I realise I may be naively missing something. And if you are in the business of planning bus services, and you want to give this a try somewhere, or you know of somewhere it has been

Are the best transport policies not about transport at all?

It’s been a week since I attended the excellent Zemo annual conference, and the thing that I’ve been thinking about most as a result is travel demand management (TDM). Chris Stark, CEO of the Committee on Climate Change, delivered a really great overview as ever, and he particularly drew attention to the purple wedge at the top of this graph – the bit about ‘reducing demand’. He understandably expressed concern that the government, and the wider transport professional community, is making a lot of noise about things like EVs, but reducing vehicle miles gets very little attention.

CCC balanced pathway for transport emissions

These concerns were echoed earlier this year when the RAC Foundation did some research into whether we could reach our transport emissions targets without reducing vehicle miles travelled. Their conclusion (I’m paraphrasing) – in theory ‘yes’, in practice ‘no’.

I should quickly point out that there are some subtle differences in what is meant by TDM in different contexts. In the RAC Foundation research, the focus is on reducing the number of miles travelled by cars. However, that could be achieved in four different ways:

  1. Making the same trips, but switching some of them to other modes (e.g. rail, bicycle)
  2. Making the same trips, but making them shorter (e.g. shopping closer to home)
  3. Combining trips so fewer are made (e.g. shopping on the way home from work)
  4. Eliminating trips altogether (e.g. working from home)

The thing that’s interesting about that list is that as you progress from 1 to 4, it gets less and less about ‘transport’ per se, and more about just how we live our lives. Transport planners think a lot about modal shift, and if they build good relationships with land use planners then they think about co-locating housing, schools, healthcare and shops to reduce trip length. (And if trips are shorter, it’s easier to achieve modal shift.) However, to my mind TDM in its purest sense is really about the second half of that list, the things that eliminate trips either by combining them or making them unnecessary.

So – to finally come back to my headline, maybe the best transport policies are the ones that eliminate or combine trips, and they often aren’t ‘transport’ policies at all. Covid has put working from home firmly on the agenda, but I can think of several other examples, such as:

  • The NHS rolling out technology that allows sufferers of chronic conditions to manage their health at home rather than making frequent hospital visits
  • Schools carrying out parent-teacher consultations online
  • Employers offering more flexible hours so that employees can attend appointments, shop etc. near their workplace during the working day
  • Rural post offices offering a wider range of services

Personally, I think the takeaway from Chris Stark’s presentation is that a dose of holistic thinking is long overdue here. Transport planners at all levels of government need to be talking to other departments to make these policy links more explicit, maybe even to fund them. A case could be made that we should take money from the roads budget and use it to finance national broadband rollout instead. We should definitely be delivering active travel policy through a pooling of resources for public health and transport. I’m quite sure that in many, probably most, cases policies to reduce travel overall will save time and money for both individuals and the public purse.

For those of us who work in transport, and the politicians tasked with deciding on policy, it’s easy to forget (or choose to ignore) that transport is mostly a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Given the choice, most people would enjoy a pleasant walk to their local high street via a park or café, but would happily avoid having to drive in rush hour because that’s the only way they can pick up a prescription. Mobility should exist in service of quality of life, not to its detriment.


RAC Foundation research

Flower power – roadside verges could be a win-win

I’m inspired to write this post by the fact that I’m lucky enough to have an office window overlooking my garden. We mainly manage it for wildlife, and at this time of year it’s a riot of growth and colour.

Wildflowers at the roadside with Anaerobic Digester in the background

There are plenty of people who seem eager to paint renewables as a threat to other land uses – witness the Tories recent attack on solar farms as competing with farmland. (This despite the fact that they take up less land in the UK than golf courses.) If you’re prepared to look properly, there are plenty of creative examples of renewables and biodiversity, going hand-in-hand. Managed grazing under solar panels, protected marine areas around offshore windfarms – and the subject of this post, roadside verges managed for wildflowers… and gas.

There are 270,000 km of rural roads and motorways in the UK, most of which have roadside verges. The typical management regime is to cut them 2-3 times per year, and leave the clippings in situ, but this does little for biodiversity. Instead, they could be managed in the same way as a traditional wildflower meadow (like my back garden), encouraging more diverse plants, and the birds, insects and mammals that would follow. In effect we could have 270,000 km of much needed wildlife corridors connecting every nature reserve in the UK.

So what does the alternative management look like, and why don’t we do it? Well, we’d actually need to cut less often (twice per year), which would save money. But, we’d also need to collect the clippings, and that’s the problem. Collecting the clippings is essential, because diverse meadow needs poorly fertilised soil, otherwise it gets dominated by a few aggressive species like nettles and certain grasses. However, collecting the clippings needs specialist equipment that costs a lot more than a tractor and flail. Local/highway authorities generally can’t afford that extra expense.

So, could those clippings have a value that would effectively pay for collection? Well, as with any meadow, they can be turned into bales of silage and kept for months, but the roadside contamination (soot, tyre dust etc.) means that silage can’t be fed to animals. However, it turns out that it’s still excellent feedstock for an anaerobic digester – so it can readily be turned into renewable methane.

Lincolnshire County Council carried out a pilot a few years ago, which was written up by researchers from the University of Leeds and published in May 2020. Their headline finding was that silage from roadside verge clippings was a viable feedstock for anaerobic digesters, and that AD operators would pay enough for it to cover the cost of collection. So there you have it, a win-win, a nationwide network of biodiversity corridors and a huge new source of renewable gas all in one.

All of which only begs the question as to why we’re not seeing more verges managed in this way, three years on from that research? I suspect it’s partly reluctance to perceived ‘untidiness’, but piles of rough cut grass look pretty unsightly too, and I think once people see verges covered in a rich carpet of colour they’ll think differently (and maybe even drop less litter). Mostly I expect it’s a lack of capacity to change – local authorities don’t have the resource to try many new things, especially if it involves investing in new equipment.

But I think the more people know about this particular win-win scenario, the more wildflowers we’ll see – so share this post!

Reference: https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/160532/

Will electrification leave rural and small bus/coach operators behind?

It’s fair to say that city bus operators are leading the way in the UK (and elsewhere) in terms of vehicle electrification. It’s easy to see why – buses are providing a visible public service, and public opinion is firmly demanding cleaner air.

Plus, it’s always been the case that the newest buses are used first in cities, with older vehicles moved out to a second (and third, and fourth) life in more rural areas. This makes sense because city buses are used more intensively, so newer vehicles are preferred. It’s especially true for electric buses because (a) their higher capital cost can be more quickly recouped from their lower running cost, and (b) they save even more money where more polluting vehicles are subject to Low Emission Zone charges.

Bus in a field of wheat

There’s a similar picture with coaches. Large operators buy new vehicles to run the high mileage, profitable inter-city routes, while small operators, with only a handful of vehicles, are using coaches that are 10 or 15 years old to do school runs and day trips in villages and market towns.

So, will rural areas just have to wait for cleaner vehicles, and can we assume that as the current crop of electric buses (and a few coaches) will filter through the market over the next decade?

Well, maybe, but maybe not, and that has got smaller operators worried. At the excellent Zemo electric bus event with Abellio in London last week, I was chatting with Peter Bradley of the UK Coach Operators’ Association (UKCOA). We’d spent the morning hearing about the huge investments going into charging infrastructure for electric buses in London depots – very inspiring, but even if UKCOA members are able to buy a used electric coach in a few years’ time, how are they going to afford the infrastructure to charge it?

A couple of positive thoughts on this came out of the event. I chatted to Lucy Parkin of Kleanbus, who are taking old Optare Solo buses and repowering them with an electric drivetrain. Equipmake have just started to do the same for coaches. At the start of the electrification journey, taking an old vehicle and fitting it with an electric drivetrain was the only way to get electric versions of heavy vehicles. Once new electric trucks and buses started rolling off production lines, repowering was perhaps seen as a bit ‘Heath Robinson’, but now it’s having a resurgence in sectors where vehicles have a long life.

A burgeoning repower market may provide smaller/rural operators with a way to buy cheaper electric vehicles without waiting decades, but what about charging infrastructure? That’s going to be a tough nut to crack, and something rural councils need to address in their charging strategies. But one possible piece of the puzzle came out of chatting to Jon Eardley of Abellio. His depots are investing in dozens of high power chargers that buses will use overnight, but their depots are all but empty during the day. They are already in discussion with coach operators bringing day-trippers into London to offer their depots as parking locations, and potentially charging locations, during the day.