Britain's First Biofuel Buses: Case Study

“I’m sure the idea of cheaper travel in exchange for the used contents of your chip pan will capture people’s imagination.” So said Brian Souter, co-founder and CEO of Stagecoach Group, at the launch of Britain’s first ever bus service to be powered by 100 per cent biofuel – and it looks like he was right, as success in Kilmarnock has begun to spark interest throughout the rest of the UK.

Using the slogan Do your part, be Bio smart!, the thinking behind the project was simple; provide essential public transport for the local community, encourage responsible recycling and offer discounted prices in return for the raw material for making the fuel – used cooking oil. In the process, it was also to prove the value of a radically different approach to biodiesel itself, which may have enormous potential impact on the whole future of biofuel usage.

Pure Biodiesel

The eight buses running in and around the Kilmarnock area were certainly not the first vehicles to use biodiesel. A number of previous trials elsewhere had already successfully established the use of mixes containing five per cent biodiesel in 95 per cent traditional diesel, but this project set out to be quite different, right from the start. Combining the talents of Stagecoach, one of the UK’s largest bus and coach operators and Argent Energy, the country’s first large scale producer of biodiesel, these eight buses were going to be fuelled with ‘B100’ – pure biodiesel – and this required a few changes to be made. Unlike conventional ‘mixed’ biodiesel, B100 needs to be stored at a constant temperature, which calls for a different kind of storage facility and some minor modifications to be made to the vehicle’s fuel system too. Buses running on this fuel must first start up in the morning running traditional diesel to achieve the right operating temperature, and then they switch automatically to the green fuel which they then burn for the rest of the day. As a result they need to be fitted with dual fuel tanks to make this possible.

Project Successes

When the project first began in October 2007, it was intended to run for six months, but it quickly became apparent that it was turning out to be just too successful to kill off so soon. Having given out 5,000 free collection containers to householders along the route, during the initial period, more than 21 tonnes of used cooking oil was handed in for recycling, and an estimated 550 tonnes of carbon, some 80 per cent of normal emissions, was cut. With results like that, unsurprisingly, the scheme was extended, having saved nearly 2,500 tonnes of carbon to date – and the repercussions didn’t end there.

In November 2010, bus operators Mersey Travel and Stagecoach Merseyside launched a similar initiative for Liverpool, as part of the European BIONIC programme to promote the production of sustainable biofuels and encourage greater use of them for public transport. This two-year trial, run in partnership with the local biofuel company Convert2Green, who are providing the B30 fuel to be used, is expected to see the overall carbon dioxide emissions of the six buses involved fall by a quarter, compared with standard diesel.

With more than two million passengers now having used the Kilmarnock Bio-bus service, it seems that the idea really has caught people’s imagination and helped them to cut their own carbon footprint. With the launch of the Merseyside project, that interest might just turn out to be contagious – and then we might really see some changes in both the provision of public transport and the wider acceptance of biofuels in general.

As Stagecoach regional director Robert Andrew, says, “we believe that new technology, such as the use of biofuel, and pro-bus policies are crucial if we are to get people to switch from the car on to our greener smarter services.” Now that certainly sounds like sense.