If the environmental benefits of alternative fuels do not provide enough motivation for transport operators to reconsider their options, the recent conflict between the United States (US) and Iran could! MARISKA MORRIS investigates
American President Donald Trump started his year with a literal bang when he ordered a United States air strike that killed top Iranian military official Major General Qassem Soleimani. According to the American government, Soleimani was planning an attack on American diplomats and services members.
Although Iran launched some missiles and mistakenly shot down a passenger aircraft, the situation has fortunately not escalated into a war, nor has it greatly affected the global fuel price. It is, however, not over yet with the price of crude oil still hanging in the balance.
More importantly, it should have countries, like South Africa, that import the majority of their oil, questioning whether there isn’t a better alternative.
Iran is no longer a main oil provider for the country, as South Africa imports most of its oil from Saudi Arabia (42 percent), Nigeria (34 percent) and Angola (13 percent). As a result, the cost of fuel is determined by international prices and supply. A war could result in a rapid spike in price or a shortage of supply.
For the transport industry, which is already under tremendous financial stress with small profit margins, a fuel price increase could be disastrous. Should the transport industry finally switch to alternative fuel sources? At the very least, the industry should re-evaluate its options.
Aside from the environmental benefits, alternative fuels can be easier to source and more efficient. There are also many alternatives to choose from including gas, biofuel, hydrogen and electricity.
Arguably the most discussed alternative receiving the biggest investment is electric vehicles (EVs). While the technology is advancing quickly, it is expensive – partly due to the cost of lithium batteries (see FOCUS Issue 9, 2019) and partly due to the luxury income tax imposed on these vehicles.
However, some electric car owners and enthusiasts feel the cost saving outweighs the expensive initial purchase price. According to an article by Independent Online, one such owner pays only R170 to fully charge his BMW i3 (2017), which cost more than R500 000. This adds up to an estimated R80 000 saving each year on petrol.
Unfortunately, the vehicle can only travel between 200 and 240 km when fully charged. While there are numerous charging points throughout South Africa, transport companies might not have 50 minutes to spare in order to wait for the vehicle to recharge. While access to electricity is a concern, the cost of EVs is still the biggest hurdle.
Even with the savings on fuel, not all transport operators or logistics companies can afford these expensive vehicles. Fortunately, while the industry waits for lithium battery prices to drop and government to lift the luxury tax, there are other alternatives. A surprising contestant already being introduced in the commuter transport industry is gas!
A case for gas
In August last year, The Citizen reported that 1 200 minibus taxis were running on comprehensive natural gas (CNG) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). A key motivation for the shift is the savings on running costs and the affordability of the technology.
In a pilot study, conducted by gas provider CNG holdings, it was found that it would cost R3 059 to travel 3 173 km in a CNG-powered vehicle, while a petrol-powered vehicle covered the same distance for R5 423. Converting a petrol-powered vehicle into one powered by gas is simple and the technology is very affordable.
By fitting an LPG gas kit, Gasdrive can convert a passenger or light commercial vehicle to a duel-fuel vehicle. A simple flick of a switch will convert the vehicle back to petrol when LPG gas is low. The company estimates a minimum of 40-percent savings on a fuel bill.
The gas is housed in its own tank with separate piping and injectors. According to Gasdrive, LPG is a cleaner fuel and causes less wear and tear on the engine. It is also 100-percent lead-free, produces fewer emissions and causes less oil contamination.
The taxi industry is taking it a step further by encouraging its stakeholders to invest in the technology and infrastructure to fast track the rollout of gas filling stations. There are currently 10 gas filling stations in Gauteng.
If converting an older vehicle into a dual-fuelled vehicle isn’t an option, transport operators renewing their fleet can look to companies like Tetra4, a division of Renergen, which supplies buses and heavy commercial vehicles that run on CNG and liquid natural gas (see FOCUS 4, 2019). With an ample, locally sourced supply, gas seems to be a more viable option.
Potential of hydrogen
Although not a new technology, until recently hydrogen hasn’t received quite the same attention and investment as the other alternatives – and possibly for good reason. When hearing hydrogen, many think of water, and since water has become an incredibly scarce and valuable element in South Africa, organisations might be less inclined to pursue this technology.
However, hydrogen can be manufactured from contaminated water that would have been dumped! In fact, Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) argues that South Africa is in the perfect position to produce hydrogen for a
global market by essentially having hydrogen production piggyback on the desalination of seawater.
There are roughly 10 desalination plants throughout the country, which can use desalinated water to produce hydrogen. Inland, HySA suggests using contaminated water sources such as mine water, to produce hydrogen. With Japan looking to import large amounts of hydrogen in the coming years, South Africa could earn a lot by investing in the technology.
In fact, HySA reckons South Africa could have a US$ 600-million (R8,6-billion) market if it captures only 25 percent of the Japanese import market. Government seems to be backing this technology. The Department of Transport discussed introducing hydrogen-powered transport in its Green Strategy document with several trials running in 2019.
Although hydrogen technology seems promising, sourcing it from desalination plants might not be productive, and there are concerns over their impact on surrounding sea life.
The transport industry is spoiled for choice and with some alternatives proving easier to source, cheaper to run and more environmentally friendly, the industry might finally want to reconsider whether fossil fuels are still worthwhile.