The Government offers subsidies for buying new electric cars and vans. Although cheap to run Electric Vehicles (EVs) are much more expensive to buy and so more suited for intensive use, such as for deliveries, car sharing or a pooled vehicle at a business of local authority. In addition they need more energy to manufacture them, so the energy payback will be less if they spend most of the day sitting in a car park or driveway. So, as a starting point, consider how electric vehicles could be best used locally.
Next you will need to consider where EVs can be charged. It’s simple to charge them at home if you have a driveway as you can simply plug an adaptor into the mains. Elsewhere you will need a charging point. Planning requirements in relation to charging points have been relaxed so planning permission is generally no longer needed. In addition planning policies should require the provision of charging points at new developments.
Department for Transport - Recharging infrastructure policy
OpenChargeMap - map showing charging points
On the continent a much greater proportion of the railways are electrified, while more many cities have trams or trolley buses (buses powered by overhead wires). Grid connected vehicles do not need to carry a battery or other power source so are better options. While their scale is outside the scope of the toolkit, it is worth considering lobbying for electrification. Electric bikes are, however, included in the toolkit and more information about them can be found in the Getting more from bikes section. Because of the assistance provided by a motor, they can be viable options for trips that you might otherwise assume could only easily be made by car.
CNG including biomethane
Although CNG is the same as domestic natural gas, it is stored at a far higher pressure. There are only a few places open to the public in the UK where CNG vehicles can be refueled. Refueling at home needs a special compressor that will cost about £2000. Using this can take many hours to refuel a vehicle because of the need to increase the pressure from mains gas. Conversion of a petrol vehicle to CNG has higher initial costs than LPG - about £1500 to £2500 - and the tank to store it is heavier and larger. Conversion from diesel is more complicated.
Converted vehicles will usually be dual fuel, and because the petrol tank is retained, the driver is able to switch back to petrol while driving if the CNG runs out, so there should not be any problems of running out of fuel.
Besides being cheaper to run, the main advantage of CNG is that you can use biomethane. Biomethane can be produced from many waste products, such as sewage, landfill, food waste and agricultural waste by an anaerobic digester. Because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, it is environmentally very beneficial to capture it and burn it as an energy source. Collecting food waste could provide a local source of feedstock for biomethane and you could return the highly nutritious compost produced, known as digestate, to householders or sell surplus off.
Setting up an anaerobic digester is complex and Defra has helped set up an Official Information Portal on Anaerobic Digestion, which provides more information about making biomethane, including a map of all anaerobic digesters.
More information is available from Cenex, a centre of excellence for low carbon and fuel cell technologies established by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). It has produced a biomethane toolkit that explains how to use biomethane as a road transport fuel, including the need to purify it.
LPG is a mix of propane and butane or in the UK often just the former. It is a by-product of the oil and gas industry, coming either from the refining process for crude oil or the extraction process of oil or gas and the UK exports almost half of the LPG it produces. Along with being a fuel for transport, it is commonly used in the UK for off-mains gas, leisure, commercial and agricultural applications. Because it is based on fossil fuels it is not sustainable, so is best considered as a short term improvement over petrol and diesel.
LPG is the most widely available alternative fuel in the UK and is available at approximately 1400 petrol stations. There are some vehicles already designed to run LPG, and most petrol cars can be converted to use LPG for £1000-£2000 from an approved specialist. As with CNG, converted vehicles are normally dual fuel vehicles.
Biodiesel is a fuel which can be produced from various forms of vegetable oil. It can be used pure or mixed with normal diesel from fossil fuels: B100 means pure biodiesel while B50 means a 50:50 blend. Biodiesel can run in normal diesel engines with little or no modification. It is biodegradable and non-toxic and it can be ultra-low carbon and low in other harmful emissions.
Biodiesel from sustainable sources is available (usually significantly cheaper than mineral diesel) from a number of local and regional business and social enterprise suppliers. Biodiesel is best if it is produced from waste vegetable oil but there is only a limited amount of this available. Otherwise the more biodiesel used, the harder it can be produced sustainably locally and the greater the risk of displacing food or wildlife habitats. If biodiesel is not available in your area, it is quite straightforward to develop biodiesel from waste vegetable oil at home for personal use and kits are available on-line. Regulations for paying duty can be complex however.