This post was sponsored by Calor, all thoughts and research my own.
Across the UK, many rural communities are not connected to the mains gas network. This leaves them to depend on traditional fossil-based fuels for heating and cooking, such as oil boilers or coal. Oil has been common for rural heating for a long time, but it is often targeted by thieves, while both coal and oil are the most polluting of the rural fuels available.
Alongside this, the UK government’s 2017 Clean Growth Strategy highlighted government desire to phase out high carbon fossil fuel heating in residential buildings that aren’t on the national gas grid, as part of a wider strategy to decarbonise the UK. As the country moves towards decarbonisation over the next decade, these households will need to find cleaner alternatives which can be used in the future as fossil fuels continue to be phased out. Simultaneously, installers of equipment like oil boilers will need to be able to offer low carbon heating solutions to stay in business.
For some, this will look like switching to electrical systems (especially for newer builds), but it’s likely there will always be those who need other solutions. This will be both due to extra demand on an electricity grid that is trying to decarbonise, and because retrofitting electric solutions to older, oil-heated properties can involve major expensive changes to entire heating systems, and electric alone may not heat a larger, older property to the levels people are used to. Plus, living off-grid is increasingly popular, meaning that some households inevitably won’t be able to hook up to national systems.
So what are the options?
From fossil fuel to LPG
Rural communities have a key role to play on our journey towards decarbonisation, which is why any future heat strategy must include a range of solutions to meet the vast array of housing stock in these areas.
A cheaper and less disruptive option can be replacing an oil boiler with an LPG appliance. LPG stands for liquid petroleum gas, a fuel consisting of propane, butane, or a mix of the two. It’s the fuel of choice for many rural self-builders who don’t have access to mains gas for things like heating, hot water and cooking.
In its current form, around 300 million tonnes of LPG is consumed per year. When it comes to LPG vs oil, it offers a lower-carbon option for off-grid energy in comparison to traditional fossil fuels; emitting 16% less CO2 than oil, 84% less Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) than oil, almost no particulate matter, and lower amounts of SO2.
Many rural and off-grid homes already use LPG in some form, whether it be for heating, cooking, hot water or appliances. Studies have found that simply switching to this fuel when cooking can make a large difference:
A very large-scale subsidised project in Indonesia converted over 50 million households from kerosene to LPG for cooking in just 5 years and reported reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of 31% compared to 2007 (Thoday et al., 2018). NOx emissions were said to have reduced by 13% and SO2 by 90%, despite an increase in the population over the same time period. Similar social and health benefits have been observed in Brazil and India (Goldemburg et al., 2018)
LPG is also popular because it can be easily stored. Unlike oil tanks, it doesn’t require a containment area. This means it can be stored above or below ground, causing little disruption to properties.
However, LPG is still ultimately derived from fossil fuels, and it has been under pressure to decarbonise. In the same way that biomass alternatives have been developed for fuels, BioLPG, an eco Propane, is a sustainable fuel that is available for use in the UK.
BioLPG: the more sustainable alternative for rural living
BioLPG, also known as biopropane, is made from a blend of renewable inputs, such as plant and vegetable waste, and sustainably sourced materials. Where LPG consists of propane and/or butane produced as a by-product of crude oil refining and natural gas processing, BioLPG is derived from biomass. It’s chemically identical to LPG, it just comes from a different source.
BioLPG has the potential to be produced in multiple ways, but the most common is as an ‘unavoidable by-product‘ of biodiesel production (a biofuel made from vegetable and waste cooking oils as an alternative to conventional diesel. It reduces emissions of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, CO2 and NOx). As biodiesel is refined, several waste ‘off-gasses’ are produced that contain BioLPG. For every tonne of biodiesel, 50kg of BioLPG is generated as ‘waste’. This is then purified to make it chemically identical to LPG. The new fuel is compatible with any LPG product, is delivered straight to rural homes, and is just as energy-efficient, but with a lower carbon footprint, reducing up to 80% CO2 emissions if 100% BioLPG is used.
Calor, (the main supplier of BioLPG in the UK, who aim to supply only renewable fuels by 2040) reported savings of approximately 308 Mt of CO2 in 2019 alone, through their supplies of a more sustainable fuel for those living off-grid and in rural communities. They source their BioLPG from nearby Rotterdam, with production using only non-fossil fuel-based feedstock. 60% of these inputs are waste materials, while the rest come from sustainably sourced vegetable oils. Because this BioLPG is produced in Europe, it also has a supply chain traceability system that’s fully compatible with EU legislation. They are currently able to offer a 40-60 blend of BioLPG and LPG, to meet the demands, but have plans of offering 100% BioLPG in the near future.
One of the main benefits of BioLPG is that anyone who has already replaced their oil boiler with an LPG one doesn’t need to do anything else except switch fuel, as no modifications to the boiler, heating systems or radiators are required. This helps rural and off-grid individuals reduce their carbon footprint without requiring expensive or difficult changes. My friends Sam and Meg Glazebrook are a great example; their handbuilt cabin has mains water and electricity, but the cooker still runs on gas. While their home and lifestyle is already low impact, using BioLPG would help them immediately further reduce their emissions, without having to do anything extra or costing the earth.
Bio LPG is far cleaner than the fossil fuel alternatives often used in ‘off-grid’ areas. We estimate that heating the average European home with Bio LPG, as opposed to an existing 12 year old heating oil boiler, could save up to 5.74 tons of carbon. This would be equivalent to the carbon used to drive 38,249 kilometres in a car or the carbon used to heat that same home for a further 1 and a half years.
Can it work for industry too?
Where BioLPG also works best is in older, hard to treat buildings such as historic and rural properties. Replacing existing oil-powered units with LPG systems (to be used with BioLPG) is a good option in these less energy-efficient buildings, where heat pumps and other technologies (for example biomass boilers) may struggle to be as effective.
This can help homeowners reduce emissions, but there’s an opportunity for businesses too. In the UK alone there are thousands of pubs, restaurants, hotels, farms and warehouses in rural areas currently using high-carbon fuels like coal and oil. Adoption of BioLPG can help rural buildings in hospitality, industrial and commercial sectors to rapidly decarbonise while saving money.
A particularly striking example is one case study of a Scottish distillery. Many distilleries are found in remote locations, where they use oil to create steam for the distillation process. For example, Islay, an island on the west coast of Scotland, has nine whisky distilleries which use up 15 million litres of fuel oil every year, costing £8 million. A switch to BioLPG could drastically change these numbers.
If a distillery in Scotland were to replace their existing oil boilers with a modern condensing LPG boiler, annual running costs would fall by 2.5% per annum, rising to 3% after accounting for servicing and maintenance costs. This annual saving would enable the distillery to payback the capital cost of the new LPG boiler in under five years which is highly appealing. Furthermore, if the distillery were to utilise bioLPG from 2030 onwards, then annual carbon emissions fall by 81% lower compared to fuel oil. Air quality would also significantly improve as emissions of NOx would fall by 80%.
Full decarbonisation will be a long, somewhat complex process across the world, but it is advancements in technology such as BioLPG that can help businesses and individuals through the transition. Those living and working off-grid or in rural areas can’t be left behind or punished because they aren’t connected to the national grid. Instead, BioLPG, a fuel essentially made from the waste of waste materials, can be a key stepping stone to partnering with these communities and businesses to lower emissions and move towards a fossil-fuel-free world.