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The second coming of diesel? HVO fuel promises diesel drivers 90% emissions reduction

Not so fast: critics say Europe is being flooded with destructive palm oil posing as the cooking oil-derived fuel

HVO is now available at a few selected filling stations

From 2008 until a peak in 2015, diesel ruled all in Ireland. We were sold its benefits as a low-carbon source of transport fuel, and Irish car buyers didn’t take much convincing when it came to lower tax, cheaper prices at the pump, and fuel economy numbers that stretched to the horizon. At the peak, near enough to 75 per cent of all cars sold in Ireland came with a diesel engine.

Then, the fall. The Dieselgate scandal broke, in which Volkswagen Group – and others, who rather got away with it to an extent – was found to have cheated on its emissions tests, and it turned out that supposedly “clean” diesel was nothing of the sort, and was pumping out noxious emissions, especially into city air. The legislative hammers came down across Europe, as did judicial ones – where several senior VW executives served jail time.

Are we about to see a second coming of diesel? Well, that is what Skoda Ireland and Certa – a big fuel supplier and part of DCC Group – would like to see. Last year, Certa began selling HVO fuel through a small number of its forecourts, and now Skoda wants to encourage its diesel car buyers to start switching to the fuel.

Are there still diesel car buyers? Well, yes. While diesel has certainly fallen off its perch, it still holds a 22 per cent market share in car sales, and Skoda sits in the number one position in that market sector – doubtless buoyed by the brand’s lofty position among business and company car sales. After all, businesses can still not claim back VAT on petrol, but they can on diesel.

“If you have kids of your own, or maybe nephews, nieces, or grandchildren who watch Thomas The Tank Engine, you’ll know that the bad guy in the series is called ‘Devious Diesel’”, said Ciara Breen, marketing manager at Skoda Ireland. “So it’s become uncool, or even unfashionable to talk about diesel, but in fact our diesel engines are now cleaner than they’ve ever been, and we want to encourage diesel drivers to use HVO in their vehicles. By doing so, they can see carbon emissions reductions of up to 90 per cent.”

HVO stands for hydro-treated vegetable oil, and while there’s a whiff of chip fat about it, it’s a much more sophisticated fuel than that which we tried to run old Mercedes diesels on in the past.

It’s a second-generation fuel, and while waste cooking oil is the primary ingredient (along with – vegetarians look away now – some animal fats and waste crops) no one from Certa is going around Ireland opening the drain taps at the backs of the local chipper. In fact, all of the HVO being sold buy Certa is actually supplied by the Finnish company Neste, and is sourced from that firm’s refinery so it arrives into Ireland as a finished product.

According to Certa, the process of creating this HVO uses both waste plant matter and hydrogen, so no extra CO2 emissions are created in its refining. The company has already been using HVO fuel in its fleet of trucks, some of which date back as far as 2007, for some time now and claims to have not seen any performance or reliability issues.

Skoda is being a little more cautious, saying that all its diesel-engined cars dating from May 2021 can safely be fuelled with HVO from a warranty perspective. It’s possible that older models, and cars from other brands, can also use it but owners are advised to do their homework first to make sure. In theory, there should be no issues as according to Certa, HVO can even be safely mixed with regular diesel.

As well as the claimed CO2 benefits, there are other upsides to HVO. It can be safely stored in a tank for up to 10 years, whereas with conventional diesel two years is the limit, so it’s ideal for seldom-used generators and the like. It’s also biodegradable, so while you do have to clean it up if spilled, it’s not the toxic issue for wildlife and plant life that normal diesel would be. It also contains no sulphur – a critical aspect for air quality – and has lower emissions of NOX (the nasty gases that were at the centre of the Dieselgate scandal) and sooty particulates.

Price is, or could be, an issue. Right now, Certa is price-matching HVO to conventional diesel at the three forecourts that sell it (in Liffey Valley in Dublin, Cork and Trim, with seven more due by the end of the year) but the natural price is around €2 per litre right now, and it will fluctuate in line with fossil-fuel prices, because HVO is a traded commodity, bound to oil prices.

There are claims of other issues, too, and one is the potential use of palm oil in HVO. While both Certa and Neste say that their products are not merely registered with the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification System (ISCC) but actively monitored by that system, others have criticised the EU’s regulations on HVO as being too leaky when it comes to the potential for suppliers from the Far East to mix in virgin palm oil – a product linked to deforestation and habitat destruction – into the legitimate waste cooking oil that’s being sent to Europe.

We need greater transparency and a limit on imports to avoid used cooking oil simply becoming a backdoor for deforestation-driving palm oil

—  Biofuels expert James Cogan

Biofuels expert James Cogan warns that when it comes to HVO, it “would be 90 per cent less carbon intense if it were actually made from ‘used cooking oil’, and it comes into Ireland certified as such, but the majority of the certs are false, and the stuff is actually made from palm oil – which is way worse than fossil diesel – and soy oil”.

How is such chicanery allowed? “There’s a profit of over €200 per tonne to be made, by false certification from palm oil to used cooking oil,” says Cogan. “There is no law against false certification. There is no office charged with investigating it. There is no punishment for anyone caught, beyond losing their ISCC accreditation, and they can get that back the next day by forming a new company. Simply put, it’s way easier to order up a tanker of palm oil than put a fleet of vans on the road to collect real cooking oil from the backs of restaurants.”

Cogan pointed out that Irish fuel retailers are not at fault – they’re merely importing fuel that’s labelled as HVO and approved by an apparently flawed EU legislative issue.

Influential environmental think-tank Transport & Environment has also criticised the use of HVO. Barbara Smailagic, the body’s biofuels expert, says: “Europe is being flooded with dodgy used cooking oil. European governments say it’s almost impossible to stop virgin oils like palm being labelled as waste. We need greater transparency and a limit on imports to avoid used cooking oil simply becoming a backdoor for deforestation-driving palm oil.”

Certa defends itself against such concerns, though. Orla Stevens, the company’s commercial director, said: “We just can’t take any chances with that. We have to stand over what we’re selling. A company such as Neste is an upstanding company, you know we’re not going down back streets, we’re not dealing with people that we can’t trust. And if our customers were to lose that trust in us, then it’s all lost. I have heard these criticisms from some quarters, but I think it’s coming from some people who have vested interests. I feel very strongly that we can stand over our HVO product.”

Laura Byrne, Certa’s head of sustainable fuels, makes an important point: “There are three classes of HVO, and we only supply Class Two fuel, which means that it’s made of 100 per cent renewable materials. There are other classes out there that are allowed to have blends, and maybe don’t have as good a grade.”

So, on balance, HVO might actually be a good thing, and could potentially allow Ireland’s thousands of diesel drivers to clean up their emissions act somewhat. However, it’s important not to think of it as some kind of miracle cure.

John Donegan says HVO is a ‘transition fuel’ between where we are now and an all-electric future. The importance of such a fuel has been thrown into sharp relief this week

John Donegan, Skoda Ireland’s brand director, said: “We recognise the importance of switching to electric cars, but we also recognise that many buyers are still choosing diesel models for a variety of reasons. They may not have access to a home charger, for example, or they may want a car with an extensive range. For these motorists, it makes sense to switch to HVO as the fuel becomes more widely available.

“As a leading car manufacturer, Skoda is acutely aware that sales of diesel and petrol-powered cars are scheduled to end in 2035 and that pure electric cars are now clearly the best and most sustainable option for new car buyers. The brand already sells hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles as well as two electric-only models, with plans to offer six electric-only models by 2026.

“Skoda, however, also recognises the status and potentially important role of HVO as a transition fuel and a cleaner alternative to diesel and, as such, is seeking to encourage both existing owners of diesel cars and any buyers of new diesel cars to consider HVO as an alternative.”

Donegan points out that HVO is a “transition fuel” between where we are now and an all-electric future. The importance of such a fuel has been thrown into sharp relief this week, as figures show that sales of all-electric cars actually shrank by 15 per cent in February compared with the same month last year, and in a market that is up by 18 per cent for the year to date, electric car sales are stagnating, rising by only 1.5 per cent. If HVO can live up to its promises, then perhaps it can be a useful route to reducing carbon emissions from the fleets of diesel engines that will continue to be driven on Irish roads long after 2035.

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