A public dilemma: choosing your power source

As the region looks to set ambitious green targets and clamp down on air pollution, public buses are front and centre in the battle over clean energy

COMMENT, PMV, Bus, Challenges, Clean energy, Fleet management, Gulf, MENA, Middle east, Rta, Transport infrastructure, Trucks

Ever since April, when Dubai’s RTA hosted the UITP MENA Transport Congress and Exhibition, I have been persistently encountering the subject of the future of public buses in the Gulf region.

Part of the reason for this is that public bus contracts are big business. The tenders from the big fleets only come around every five years, and cause a stir when they do.

However, it is also because the challenges facing the Gulf’s bus sector, as the region looks to go green, present a microcosm of broader developments to come: heat-stressed public buses are just the start.

At present, there are essentially three cleaner alternatives to diesel public buses in the region: bio-diesel, (hybrid-)electric and compressed natural gas (CNG). However, the choice between these three options is no simple dilemma.

Bio-diesel has been much touted in recent years, but the displacement of arable crops for bio-fuel production is controversial, as it risks raising global food prices. The conversion from modern diesel engines to biodiesel is also not straightforward.

Electricity is currently being promoted the most enthusiastically, but while battery technology is coming along in leaps and bounds, it is ultimately still a way off being able to power public buses operating in high temperatures for any significant duration.

The alternative is the installation of widespread recharging infrastructure, but this would be costly and still not deal with the problems of short battery life due to the rapid cycling.

In the vacuum created by the shortfalls of the options above, CNG is rapidly emerging as a new favourite for many of the same reasons that have led to the rise of gas-burning power plants.

Gas is clean, widely available and cheap, and beyond the cost of the vehicles themselves, the cost of installing the infrastructure would be minimal in most countries, which already have some sort of capacity for storing and distributing compressed natural gas.

For the sake of balance, however, in last month’s big interview Ajit Kumar, CEO of Swaidan Trading, did raise two issues with the technology: the first being that CNG engines run at higher internal combustion temperatures — a potential pitfall in the already sweltering heat — and secondly that CNG limits the secondary market of vehicles to countries that also have well-established CNG infrastructure.

In this month’s big interview Franz Von Redwitz, MD of MAN Truck & Bus, goes some way to dispelling these problems. MAN has already successfully trialled its CNG buses in the region, and indeed has a healthy population in Iran. In one fell swoop, we know that CNG buses can take the heat, and that there is at least one very large market that would be ready to buy second-hand premium buses from the Gulf.

MAN conducted its successful trial in Abu Dhabi in 2011, and it has been involved with CNG in Iran since 2006, so the practical objections are in fact moot. Instead, it appears that the major obstacle to the implementation of CNG as an alternative fuel for public buses is the inertia of diesel, and a reluctance among regional authorities to be first unto the breach.

With the most recent trial getting underway in Dubai, however, it does seem possible that the lure of promoting green credentials at Expo 2020 could tip the balance in CNG’s favour.

In Europe, the first LNG truck just journeyed from Spain to Germany, demonstrating the maturity and range of CNG’s sister technology. While it is less likely that LNG will arrive in the region any time soon (since the low-temperature storage is somewhat of a problem), it is another sign that we are in the latter days of diesel.

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