Could natural gas be the answer to London’s pollution concerns?
The figures are highest for Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster (both at 8.3%), followed by Tower Hamlets, the local authority containing the international trading center of Canary Wharf (8.1%). In some rural parts of the UK the level is much lower, at around 2.5%.
Public Health England has called for policies to “encourage a shift from motorized transport to walking and cycling.” But making changes to the fuel mix could also provide substantial improvements.The majority of London’s 8,600 buses currently run on diesel, but switching to an alternative such as natural gas could provide both pollution and fuel cost benefits.
Natural gas is a much cleaner fuel, producing almost zero particulates, as well as reduced carbon dioxide emissions. Fuel costs may also be lower for gas than oil in coming years.
In mid 2008, UK annual gas contracts, in oil-equivalent pricing (assuming 5.8 million Btu to the barrel), were more than $100/barrel. But after the financial crisis of that year, gas was slower to recover, and gas is now priced much lower relative to oil, at around $60/bbl against more than $100 for Brent crude.
In the US, the shale gas boom of recent years has broken the link between oil and gas prices, and there could be potential for further price divergence between natural gas and oil in Europe should the shale industry take off in Europe too.
The UK has a well-established pipeline network offering access to gas throughout the country. Transport activities that follow regular routes, such as city buses or motorway haulage, seem best placed to switch to gas, given the possibility to make regular returns to a refueling station in advance of a wider filling network being developed.
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The town of Reading, west of London, has 20 CNG buses now in operation, he said, while in the US, Los Angeles has thousands.
“CNG buses are here now, a great solution,” Baldwin said. He added that using food, agricultural or sewage waste to produce biomethane could make them carbon neutral too.
A spokesman for Transport for London said, however, that its current focus is on switching around 20% of its fleet (about 1,700 of 8,600 buses) to hybrid diesel-electric by 2016.
There are currently eight hydrogen-fueled buses on trial in London, as well as two electric buses, with a further six electric buses due later this year.
The spokesman said that for the requirements of London’s transport service, and bearing in mind space limitations for refueling in depots, it saw hybrid technology as “leading the way” at present, adding that there are not yet any double-decker gas buses on the market.
Baldwin says that double-deck gas buses are now “being developed” and that London could make a start with the large number of single-deck buses already in operation in the city. TFL says that it does keep options under regular review.
The wider gas industry is likely to be supportive of any moves toward greater use of gas as a transport fuel. Inroads into a new sector would offer potential for growth to partly compensate the greatly reduced consumption of gas in power generation seen in recent years.