It’s a gas!
Despite being bombarded with information about the negative impact of the ever-increasing number of vehicles on our roads, how many of us are really listening? And is there anything we can do that will make a difference? STUART MOIR investigates the hype around gas.
According to Zwanani Mathe, senior manager at the South African National Energy Research Institute (SANERI), approximately 53% of the world’s refined oil-based fuel is currently transported by road. “Obviously, the costs incurred have a direct impact on fuel prices,” he says. “The cost of transporting refined product will increasingly determine the demand for crude oil, affecting its price.” So, although South Africa has sufficient crude oil reserves in place and coal-based fuel production facilities to ensure that the demand for refined fossil fuels can be met for the next twenty years, in the longer term – because our country is essentially an importer of crude oil – escalating transport costs for crude oil and refined fuel could have a devastating effect on the economy.
But the environmental and health concerns around burning fossil fuels are even more alarming. “The worse air pollutants emitted by conventional motor vehicles include particulate matter (PM), lead (Pb), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and carbon monoxide (CO). Of these, PM and Pb are the most harmful – both to the environment and humans,” Mathe adds. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that emissions from cars, buses and trucks account for as much as half of all cancers attributed to toxins in the air we breathe.
Nevertheless, there is hope… Technological developments now make it possible to convert some forms of waste into energy; two examples being the manufacture of biogas from sewerage and biodiesel from used cooking oil. So the potential for finding a sustained source of cleaner energy is significant – and, on this front, Government is definitely playing its part.
Committed to improving energy efficiency in the transport sector by way of medium-to-long-term poisonous emissions mitigation scenarios, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism is doing everything practically possible, in a developing country, to encourage the use of green technologies and improve overall vehicle efficiency. Government’s biofuels strategy is expected to result in a 2% penetration by biofuels of our national liquid fuel supply within the next two years; an equivalent to 400 million litres per annum.
And we’ve already heard about the carbon tax on private vehicles to be implemented in September this year, ranging from 0.6% to 4.1%, depending on the size of the vehicle. The tax will initially apply to passenger cars, but will be extended to commercial vehicles once agreed carbon emission standards have been set. “The South African government intends reducing green house gases (GHG) by 34% during the next ten years, and 42% by 2025,” says Mathe, although he does concede that this is still under discussion.
In order to meet these targets, Government is facilitating partnerships between key role players aimed at promoting the development and use of sustainable alternatives to fossil-based fuel – and improving public awareness on the issue. “Government support in developing relevant standards, policies and incentive schemes will contribute significantly to providing long-term solutions to our energy problem,” Mathe believes.
CNG Technology, a front-runner in natural gas techonology, is one such role player, focusing on a world-wide trend towards utilising natural gas from alternative sources rather than depending on coal-bed methane gas piped from other, not necessarily friendly, countries.
Another project in South Africa supported by Government is spearheaded by NGV Gas (Pty) Ltd, who specialise in the provision of gas filling stations for both private and public transport. “NGV Gas is jointly working with SANERI to establish various pilot projects whereby compressed natural gas (CNG) is available to be utilised by vehicle operators as an alternative fuel to diesel and petrol,” explains Stephan Rothman, managing director of CNG Technology. “It offers a turnkey solution to all fleet owners who wish to use an eco-friendly energy source that has not only been proved to be cleaner, but also to be more cost effective than both petrol and liquid petroleum gas (LPG)-powered vehicles,” he adds.
NGV Gas is continuously working on expanding its current infrastructure to make CNG readily accessible to end-users. The company aims to establish its first mother station in Johannesburg with a carrying capacity of 1.5 million gigajoules (GJ) of gas. Working hand-in-hand with SANERI, this mother station will be the first to demonstrate the practicalities of the new technology to end-users; and will eventually be replicated elsewhere in Gauteng, as well as in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, as part of a longer-term plan to supply end-users by way of a comprehensive distribution network.
According to Rothman, customers’ natural gas requirements can be supplied to vehicle filling points by road – using a “virtual pipeline” – or connected directly to existing natural gas pipelines if customers have one. “All gas supply equipment can be installed and provided at no cost to the customer, who will only pay for the gas consumed,” he says.
With government support, private sector initiatives in South Africa aimed at generating methane gas from various sources are also making enormous strides forward. “Other than coal-bed methane extraction, natural gas can be sourced from a variety of waste products that are abundant in South Africa – including landfills, municipal sewage and food waste,” says Rothman. Nevertheless, because of South Africa’s plentiful coal deposits, large investments have been committed to the exploration of coal-bed methane projects.
As far as the price of CNG is concerned, NGV Gas filling stations have already demonstrated savings of between 20% and 35%, depending on the fossil fuel source substituted and the type of natural gas supplied. “Another benefit has been a reduction in carbon emissions, offering clients the benefit of earning carbon credits,” Rothman says. “Also, fuel theft is eliminated because people can’t steal gas!”
Of course, increasing public awareness of the prototype CNG vehicles available is an important element of the process of persuading transport operators to switch from fossil fuels to CNGs. But both Volkswagen Truck and Bus and Iveco have risen to the challenge. “By using CNG, Iveco vehicles have seen a reduction in maintenance cost and service intervals, which have moved from 15 000 km to approximately 50 000 km. Monthly fuel bills were also reduced, by between 20% and 30%, not to mention a decrease on breakdown-related costs,” Rothman says.
According to Mathe, accessibility also affects the willingness of end-users to convert to CNG and enjoy its benefits. However, with the first NGV Gas mother station located next Egoli Gas in Johannesburg – and Sasol’s main coal-bed methane supply point to the Egoli Gas network now operational – transport industry consumers have been able to access CNG since early April 2010. “At the mother station, CNG dispensers have been available to vehicles and various end-users since mid-March,” Rothman adds.
CNG dispensers at the Langlaagte site are already being used by five minibus taxis, a Volkswagen 63-seater DG-Flex bus, and as many as four other passenger vehicles. But, as Rothman acknowledges, “Setting up fully operational CNG filling stations is of high importance to us. We’re looking for infrastructure that can service up to 100 buses, trucks or taxis at once.”
With natural gas (and, predominantly, methane) competitively priced at approximately R6/l, it is clearly a viable energy alternative to fossil-based fuel – and avoiding the uncertainties underpinning fluctuations in the price of petrol and diesel is another reason to switch. But perhaps the biggest benefit of using gas is that it can reduce the amount of PMs released into the atmosphere by as much as 75%. So, natural gas isn’t just a safe and cost effective fuel, it’s helping to put South Africa firmly on the road towards protecting our magnificent environment. With some CNG-powered vehicles running cleaner than Euro 6 engines, why not embrace a cleaner tomorrow by switching to gas?