Opinion – Super Fuel or Duper Fuel

It is less than a week since I published an article highlighting how the environmental lobby had adopted a “by any means necessary” approach to carbon reduction. How the world had set sail towards a sustainable future without checking the likely travel conditions. How the Road to Zero was seen purely as a destination, with little or no consideration given to the actual route or the journey.

And here we are, less than seven days later, and the industry appears to have hit a significant pothole on that Road to Zero.
Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (or HVO as it is better known) was widely heralded as the ideal stepping-stone; an almost carbon neutral stop-gap that would suffice until electricity or hydrogen fuelled machines became a viable alternative.

It certainly appeared to have all the right credentials. HVO is 90 percent carbon-neutral and producers say that it reduces nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 30 percent and particulates by up to 85 percent. It is also biodegradable.

Construction and demolition companies and plant hire firms were quick to spot the potential and they embraced the new super fuel. Just over a year ago, the National Federation of Demolition Contractors urged its members to switch to HVO.

But now comes the news that two significant organisations have come out against the use of HVO. The first is Balfour Beatty.

Now Balfour Beatty is notoriously contrarian. Tell Balfour Beatty that the sky is blue and they will try to convince you that it is, in fact, green. Even so, it will unquestionably set alarm bells ringing when the UK’s biggest construction company says publicly that: “Balfour Beatty does not directly purchase HVO fuel for our sites and will expect our supply chain to support our policy position when working for Balfour Beatty.”

The company goes on to say: “We are working with our supply chain partners to keep HVO use when operating plant and fleet on our sites to an absolute minimum. For example whilst some plant may arrive from other sites with tanks part full of HVO, once used up, we expect them not to refill their plant with HVO whilst on a Balfour Beatty site.”

As I said, Balfour Beatty has something of a track record for rowing its own canoe as Build UK found to its cost recently.
The second organisation to drop a fly into the HVO ointment is rather harder to ignore.

The Environment Agency – you know, the public body charged with protecting the environment – has banned the use of HVO on its sites since September.

Much of the concern from both Balfour Beatty and the Environment Agency seems to stem from the categorisation of HVO.

HVO is made from used cooking oil or UCO; and many in construction and demolition circles chose to believe that HVO was, in fact, a way in which to repurpose a waste product.

That, apparently, is not the case. UCO has been used for years in the production of animal feed. And there are now fears that diverting UCO into the production of HVO will mean that animal feed manufacturers will have to find a new and potentially unsustainable substitute.

According to Jo Gilroy, Balfour Beatty’s group sustainability director, it is simply a matter of due diligence. “We’re very good at jumping on solutions and thinking they’re the answer to our problems, aren’t we?” she says. “We look for easy wins, and HVO looked like that. But any one-hit wonder solution needs to be examined carefully; you always have to do your due diligence.”

As I said last week, the industry, society and the world is rightly focused upon the carbon neutral destination; so much so that it has possibly not given sufficient thought to the journey from here to there.

Or, as David Taylor at The Construction Index puts it: “Your path towards net zero is more likely to lead you into a maze than it is to take you straight from A to B.”