Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  Q180  David Howarth: I think you have already mentioned the low carbon buses target. The Department for Transport's target was 600 per year to be sold by 2012 but apparently the number sold last year was 19. The number the year before that was five, so I suppose there has been some improvement. Could you elaborate on why you think progress in that area is so slow? You talked about how London could use its purchasing power to meet its particular target but nationwide this is not going to get anywhere near the target if present trends continue.

  Mr Evers: I think part of the reason has been the emergence simultaneously of the various competing types of technologies, so at the same time you have diesel hybrid buses emerging, flexi-fuel buses that use a very high blend of biofuels along with a lot of talk about the emergence of hydrogen fuel cell buses as well. That has created a certain amount of confusion as to what is the likely dominant technology in the future for public transport operators. That has also created a degree of confusion amongst manufacturers as to how much they should commit to a certain technology to scale up their manufacturing facilities so that they can provide buses at a cost-effective price. In the wake of several trials that have taken place both within London for hydrogen fuel cell buses and abroad for both biofuelled and diesel hybrid buses there is far more certainty around the robustness of various technologies and the likely timeframe over which they are going to emerge. For instance, hydrogen fuel cell buses are more likely to become more cost-effective and viable in the 10 to 15 year timeframe whereas diesel hybrid buses are far more attractive over the shorter term. As a result of that I think you will see a more rapid acceleration of the number of alternatively fuelled vehicles over the course of the next two, three, four, five years and that number of around 600 buses per annum is perhaps not overly optimistic by the time you get to 2010.

  Dr Austin: There comes a point where the manufacturers then start saying, "Yes, we will do it". I think last week, or the week before, Wright Bus in Northern Ireland announced that they were going to gear up to produce their hybrid buses on a larger scale. Obviously they feel there must be a commercial rationale for them to do that and once companies such as they start doing it that will gradually increase production, et cetera, and customers will come. I think 600 is possible.

  Q181  David Howarth: You do not see any need for regulatory change or any other change of policy, it is just a matter of the market sorting out the standard, a bit like Betamax against VHS?

  Ms Dedring: For sure some kind of stronger stick type of mechanism to incentivise the take-up would be a good thing and not a bad thing. Because of the rising fuel prices bus operators may have a greater incentive to look to hybrid buses more than they have in the past because they are still about 50% more expensive than regular buses. If you were looking at it from a pure cost standpoint it depends on the fuel price whether or not that breaks even from a purely market driven perspective. Certainly I think it would be worth considering whether it is something to be done. In London we are definitely thinking about what we can do to ramp that up. As Mark was saying, the discussion about hydrogen fuel cells has somewhat compromised that discussion because you think if that is coming along is it worth converting the bus fleet to hybrid in the interim? It depends how long you think the interim period is going to be and how long it is going to take for a lower emission technology to come along: "If it is 50 years we had better do something now, but if it is 10 years maybe we should wait for the alternative technology". That has been another area of confusion.

  Q182  David Howarth: What about the Bus Service Operators Grant? Would not a technology neutral way of approaching this be to reform that to incentivise investment in low carbon buses in general? Have you discussed this with the Department for Transport? If so, what have they said?

  Ms Dedring: As I understand it, what we have discussed with them has been based not on an environmental perspective or a CO2 perspective but from a pure operational standpoint. We have sent a submission to the DfT but on that basis only where the discussion was around whether it should be based on passenger kilometres or not which has a knock-on impact on CO2 as load factors increase. Certainly that would have an impact and you could imagine various ways of restructuring that to have an impact on take-up. Again, the rebate only dilutes the impact that fuel prices are already having.

  Q183  David Howarth: What was the response of the Department to your suggestions?

  Ms Dedring: I do not think there has been one as far as I am aware.

  Dr Austin: It was part of their consultation.

  Q184  Mr Caton: Continuing with something you have already raised, and that is the subject of hybrid buses, I understand you have recently started running a number on your route 360. What is your evaluation so far in terms of reliability, carbon emissions, costs, including running costs, passenger satisfaction or, indeed, any other yardstick you might be using?

  Mr Evers: To be honest, I do not think that has been consolidated as yet. It is a very recently commenced trial and I am not aware of the details of that at this particular point in time. There has been no adverse impact at all but I would not like to comment specifically on any of those at this stage.

  Q185  Mr Caton: Are you assessing it?

  Mr Evers: Yes. It is being assessed on an ongoing basis but I am not in possession of those figures at the moment.

  Ms Dedring: Certainly once we formed the view that the lags in terms of a larger scale adoption would be signalling to the manufacturers that there was a certain volume to be purchased, and also flowing that through the contract structure we have in London, you would be talking about a three or four year lag time in terms of getting those significant volumes of hybrids out on to the street. It is worth mentioning that New York has just purchased 300 or more hybrid buses following a trial they have done and the upshot was the maintenance and running costs were slightly higher but that is what you might expect with a new technology and those were expected to bed down and be similar to the existing bus fleet. They have had a very positive experience.

  Q186  Mr Caton: Is there anything more that the Department for Transport could be doing to encourage the take-up of hybrid buses both in London but also across the rest of the country?

  Ms Dedring: Yes is probably the short answer. We have not really thought carefully about what would be the best mechanism in order to do that. One could stipulate a certain percentage of the fleet to be hybrid. Certainly hybrid technology is highly appropriate for a bus fleet type of environment because hybrid technology declines in its CO2 effectiveness if you are talking about longer haul travel. Buses which travel in an inner city environment that idle at red lights is where hybrid technology particularly shines. Certainly for bus and taxi fleets there is a very strong argument for pushing for those to be converted to hybrid in their entirety really and it is a nearly proven technology unlike some other fuel types and other technology types where the kinks are still being ironed out. It does deliver a significant reduction in CO2 emissions without compromising performance substantially compared to if you look at the fuel cell buses which are still very expensive and there are a lot of complexities associated with getting hydrogen into the depots. It is much more complex and much more expensive by orders of magnitude.

  Q187  Emily Thornberry: Is not one of the other advantages that are seen not just the reduction in CO2 emissions but also the fact that they are quiet and particularly on some busy roads they could make all the difference? My question is if you are going to introduce them elsewhere will you be thinking of introducing them on main roads? The A1, for example, through Islington would be one that I would recommend particularly strongly.

  Dr Austin: There would be an argument for them on the minor roads so they do not wake people up. The only other issue is that London is a slightly differently contractual regime for buses in the sense that Transport for London can say, "These are the buses we want" whereas outside London it is effectively the operator who can decide what is best for them from a financial perspective. Whatever the DfT will need to do they will have to take that issue into consideration.

  Ms Dedring: There is an interesting knock-on effect if we purchase a significant percentage of our fleet as hybrids. Because of the desire to keep the fleet in London quite new and modern looking to preserve that quality impression that Kevin was alluding to earlier, those are resold on to other parts of the UK in many cases so you would have a spill-over effect more broadly into the UK if they were adopted into the London fleet.

  Q188  Mr Vaizey: I think you were mentioning hydrogen fuel cell technology at the end of one of your answers just now. You have got three hydrogen fuel cell technology buses. Could you tell the Committee a bit about what your experience has been using those?

  Mr Evers: Those buses have been trialled over the last two years. Over that time their operational characteristics have been monitored quite closely and it would be fair to say that over that time period we have seen an improvement in the performance of those vehicles as we have got used to how they operate. There are still some minor operational issues around the range of some of the buses, the amount of power that they have on certain routes, so they would be more applicable to some routes in London than others. Certainly our experiences to date would suggest that when the technology becomes cost-effective hydrogen fuel cells would be a viable technology to use for buses in London and other urban environments.

  Q189  Mr Vaizey: That has been a similar experience in other European cities that have been trying these?

  Mr Evers: That is correct.

  Q190  Mr Vaizey: We are not going to see hydrogen fuel cell buses imminently being used. Is the barrier to that growth Government support into research into hydrogen fuel?

  Mr Evers: I do not think that would be the barrier. The barrier is the technology itself has not been developed sufficiently. It is not so much throw more money at it, but technologies take time to bed down to discover the problems that need to be solved and we are on a long road to bedding down the technology and making it more effective. For instance, some of the hydrogen fuel cells are still very, very large to provide the sorts of ranges that you need in certain areas so that means it is not particularly suitable for certain bus configurations, double-decker buses et cetera. We are slowly moving towards that. As manufacturers start to see more and more moves towards the use of hydrogen fuel cells both within transport and also in other applications the cost-effectiveness will become more attractive and we will start to see that kicking in.

  Q191  Mr Vaizey: The reason I mention Government funding is because I think in your memo you expressed concern about how we research funding for hydrogen fuel cell technology and how the different programmes can work together. Is there a problem in terms of joined-up research?

  Ms Dedring: I think it is a component. The problem is that a lot of these technological issues are really quite significant so more than 50% of the problem is not the grant issue. Mark was telling me this morning that withdrawal of government grants from certain types of technologies has created confusion in the market. That kind of thing is highly unhelpful when you are trying to develop new technologies. It is clearly a component but from an operational standpoint and just looking at the market, how long it will take to become viable technologically and from a cost standpoint, the estimates vary widely but I have not seen anything that sounds feasible that is less than 10 to 15 years away and possibly very much more than that, 20 or 30 years away, which is why my personal view is that looking at some kind of alternative for the medium term is really critical.

  Q192  Mr Vaizey: Would one of those be biofuels? Could you talk a bit about how you are using biofuels?

  Mr Evers: Yes. Biofuels can be used in either low blended proportions or high blended proportions. In blends of up to five to 10% you do not need to make any modifications, or very minor modifications, to the vehicles that are operating using that. Obviously you see a proportionately lower CO2 benefit as a result of that. Stockholm has indicated their shift towards moving their bus fleet to 100% E85 fuelled vehicles—these are buses operating on biofuels which comprise 85% biofuel and 15% fossil fuel derived petroleum—by 2020. There are countries that have significant experience in this area already and they have demonstrated that biofuels are an alternative that need to be considered so long as the source of the feedstock for those biofuels and the manufacturing process in order to produce them has CO2 benefits.

  Q193  Mr Vaizey: Is this part of your strategy as well?

  Mr Evers: It is one of the areas which we are looking at to see whether or not it offers something for London, yes.

  Ms Dedring: The best thing about biofuel is that it is not an alternative, you can use it in conjunction with hybrid technology and in conjunction in low blends with the existing buses. It is not an either/or decision.

  Mr Evers: You can take the example of Scania, the vehicle partner of Stockholm Transport, who are in the process of developing a biofuel hybrid bus at the moment which again demonstrates these technologies can be used in parallel.

  Q194  Mark Pritchard: If you are looking for feedstock there are plenty of Shropshire farmers who would be very happy to put their supply of sugar beet for biofuel production. My small, but hopefully not insignificant, question is this: can you recycle spent fuel cells, the actual piece of kit? Are they recyclable themselves?

  Mr Evers: To be honest, I am not 100% sure. I am sure the components of it could be recycled but I do not know whether or not 100% of the fuel cell itself could be recycled.

  Q195  Mark Pritchard: What is the average life not of the actual cell which we fuel or we charge but the hardware that it fits in and the overall framework, as it were, that it sits in? What is the lifespan of that? Where have the ones that have already been spent gone? Can they be recycled? If not, can you drop the Committee a note?

  Mr Evers: I think it would be better if we could come back to you with the facts.

  Q196  Mark Pritchard: It would be quite an interesting and perhaps fascinating paradox to have fuel cells that were recyclable trying to reduce carbon emissions.

  Ms Dedring: It is a similar issue to the question about where do you get the energy that is producing the fuel cells because if they are highly CO2 intensive then you do not want to do that either. It is a common misconception that hydrogen fuel cell is zero emission but it is not if you take the well to wheel type of approach with fuel cells, if you take the whole lifecycle. It can be a bit of a misleading type of technology where people think, "Ah, problem solved, no more CO2".

  Mark Pritchard: A bit like windmills without wind being powered by electricity. Thank you, Chairman.

  Q197  Mr Vaizey: I want to ask about taxis. You have made it pretty clear that taxis should be moving to hybrid technology. Could you talk a bit about the contribution of taxis to carbon emissions in London and what moves you are making to try to move taxi drivers into low carbon vehicles? I have noticed there is one minicab company that is now touting the fact that it is using the Toyota Prius. Do they get any additional grant, subsidy, let-off because of what they are doing?

  Mr Evers: The contribution of taxis and private hire vehicles to London's CO2 emissions is around about 4% of the total transport related CO2 emissions. That comes to something of the order of 400,000 tonnes of CO2 annually split around 50/50 between the Black Cab fleet and private hire vehicles. It is a reasonably significant contributor to transport CO2 in London.

  Q198  Mr Vaizey: In terms of the minicab operator and whether or not they are receiving any additional incentives?

  Dr Austin: That was a minicab operator in Hammersmith, I think, and Toyota have given them five initially and they are looking to increase up to 50. As far as I know they are not receiving any incentives but we could find out. The fact they are using new vehicles, the Prius, is quite a good selling point for them and that could encourage people to use them, so it is a good commercial decision.

  Q199  Mr Vaizey: My main point is whether there is any programme to try to move taxis in general to low carbon technology?

  Ms Dedring: Not at the moment. Because the Mayor has expressed a strong desire to do something more aggressive on the whole climate change agenda we are looking at a whole range of things that we should be doing differently potentially and that is internally in progress. In principle that is the kind of thing we can do. The advantage is because of the licensing regime we have some tools to do that. It has been used to get the taxis to adopt the new standards of euro engines in terms of air quality. There are definitely tools at our disposal, unlike with private vehicles where there is not very much we can do short of using the Congestion Charge or parking fees.

  Dr Austin: That is probably what we will be concentrating on, to reduce the PM10 emissions from taxis which in central London is about a quarter of all those emissions.

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