Environment Agency contractors have been told that they must stop using HVO fuel on EA sites from 30th September due to concerns that it is not always as environmentally friendly as advertised.
Although HVO is more expensive than regular diesel, it is sold as 90% net carbon neutral. Producers says that it reduces nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 30% and particulates by up to 85%. It is also biodegradable.
In an industry facing many challenges to reach government net zero targets, the cost has increasingly been deemed justified by the environmental gains – especially by public sector clients.
Over the past couple of years we have reported on numerous companies switching, either completely or at least on certain projects, to HVO. These include Bam, Kier, Skanska, Amey, McAlpine, Sisk, Lovell, Keltbray, Speedy, Carnell, Tarmac, Land & Water, Cadman Cranes, Aggreko, GGR, GAP Hire, Ainscough Crane Hire and Rock & Alluvium. In August 2021 the National Federation of Demolition Contractors (NFDC) directed its 140 members to switch to HVO or an alternative low-carbon solution.
What was recently seen as a slightly wacky fringe fuel is now a big enough business to prompt BP to invest millions in a 30% stake in Green Biofuels Ltd, the UK’s biggest supplier of hydrotreated vegetable oil.
However, not everyone is so keen on it. HVO is often – perhaps usually – produced from palm oil, extracted from deforested rainforest plantations and transported halfway around the world. It maybe good with regards to tailpipe emissions, but embedded emissions in production and transportation are not so great.
Only 8% of all verified renewable fuel supplied to the UK is produced from UK origin feedstocks, according to latest government statistics. However, the same statistics report that 100% of biodiesel sold in the UK comes from waste feedstock (and 93% from used cooking oil), not from virgin palm oil.
In a classic example of a lack of joined up government, while the Environment Agency is banning HVO, the Department for Transport still encourages its use. On the HS2 project it sponsored research into the benefits of HVO used by its contractors.
Balfour Beatty Vinci (BBV) carried out a trial last year as part of HS2’s Innovation programme, in partnership with Imperial College London. The resulting report backed the use of HVO where provenance of the ingredients is assured. It recommended that where biofuels are being used, they should be in line with the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), which regulates biofuels used for transport and non-road mobile machinery. It also recommends that biofuel providers should be registered with recognised assurance schemes such as the Zemo Partnership Renewable Fuels Assurance Scheme. (Zemo stands for zero emissions.)
Green Biofuels (GBF) – the UK’s biggest HVO supplier, as already mentioned – is keen to reassure both the market and public sector clients of the green credentials of its HVO.
“Green Biofuels Ltd, as an ISCC [International Sustainability and Carbon Certification] member, sources waste-derived renewable diesel. This is strictly managed under the RED II directive guidelines. There aren’t any virgin crops or feedstocks associated with land use change,” it said.
“Under the RTFO, and managed for the DfT [Department for Transport], the eligibility and sustainability are monitored and policed. All sales to customers are accompanied by Zemo certification, as GBF is an approved renewable fuel supplier, a scheme which Zemo operates on behalf of the Department of Transport. We were adopters of the Renewable Fuels Assurance Scheme to enable a full chain of custody of our fuels from feedstock to end user.
“We welcome the EA being vigorous around the supply chain of all materials procured directly and indirectly by them and would welcome debate. However, excluding HVO in their supply chain hampers their transition to net zero and removes an important tool to help take action against climate change today.”
Green Biofuels recognised that HVO might not be perfect but it was better than burning fossil fuels.
“HVO is not the ultimate solution but a key transitional technology that enables the industry to make positive steps while appropriate energy pathways develop without risk or capital expenditure,” the company continued.
It also said that the Environment Agency had been badly advised on the issue: “Its decision indicates an outdated approach to the energy transition and draws conclusions from incomplete research and several misconceptions regarding the renewable credentials of biofuels. It made no reference to the advanced fuels industry and the decision is in direct contrast to the positions of the UK government, the European Union and the World Environmental agency [sic].”
We have approached the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) for comment and await a response.