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Engineers Ireland: Driving sustainable transport solutions

Compressed natural gas and electric cars require a range of infrastructures

A quiet – almost silent – revolution has been taking place on Irish roads in recent years. While major signature transport engineering projects such as motorways and the Luas have captured the public attention, the increasing number of electric vehicles traversing the highways has gone almost unnoticed.

During the first eight months of 2014 alone, more new electric cars were registered in Ireland than the total number registered up until then. This brings the number to more than 500. While this is still very small in the context of 90,000 cars sales so far this year, it should be remembered this is a recent technology.

According to Senan McGrath, chief technology officer with ESB eCars, there is evidence of a growing appetite for the new cars even at the top end of the market.

"The right-hand drive version of the Tesla was only launched in the UK in June and three of them were registered in Ireland in August alone," he says. "BMW has just launched its i3 at around €40,000 each and has sold 13 already."


Figures for the €135,000 i8 plug-in hybrid are even more impressive. While just one has been officially registered, the company is reporting that a further five have already been sold.

“This is very encouraging. You have to remember that the motor industry produces a very good product. The internal combustion engine is highly sophisticated and people are very pleased with it. It’s going to be very difficult to displace it,” says McGrath.

But the clear financial and environmental benefits of electric cars are winning people over in greater numbers. At just two cent per kilometre in electricity costs at offpeak rates, the cars work out at between one-fifth and one-eighth the price of petrol equivalents.

“In the US, the adoption rate of e-cars is twice as fast as hybrids when they were first introduced”, says McGrath.

The ESB is supporting the introduction of e-cars to Ireland through the provision of a national charging-point infrastructure.

“This infrastructure is necessary for the adoption of the cars. We now have about 850 public charge points in towns and cities – and over 60 fast change points every 60km on the motorways and major inter-urban routes,” says McGrath.

Fuel for fleets

E-cars aren’t the only innovative vehicles to hit the streets of late, however.

Bord Gáis

Networks is undertaking a revolutionary project to transform Ireland’s road haulage and service fleet sector. This is motivated by a belief that increased competition, concern over the dominance of oil and a focus on emissions provide an opportunity for Ireland to embrace alternative sources of transport energy including compressed natural gas (CNG).

CNG is natural gas is compressed into specially designed fuel tanks in a natural gas vehicle. This system allows for fast-fill operation giving refuelling times equivalent to traditional petrol or diesel vehicles.

The aim of the CNG in transport project is to promote the use of this fuel as a viable alternative to diesel or petrol for road haulage and fleet vehicles. The project involves the development of refuelling points at strategic locations around Ireland and conducting practical trials with companies seeking to make the transition to CNG.

"We believe that CNG and biogas have a role to play in the future," says Dan Fitzpatrick, CNG strategic planning manager with Bord Gáis Networks. "They will not be competing with electric vehicles, they will be complementing them. CNG produces 25 per cent less CO2 emissions than diesel, and has significantly reduced levels of other harmful emissions such as nitrogen and sulphur oxides. Also, biogas is a fully sustainable form of natural gas and is a carbon-neutral fuel."

Over the past 10 years, there has been a significant growth in natural gas vehicles worldwide, with on average 30 per cent annual growth reported. Globally there are approximately 16 million such vehicles, with 1.8 million in Europe with countries like Italy, Germany, Sweden and Spain leading the way.

Ireland’s record

Ireland lags behind in this trend, largely due to a lack of infrastructure to serve these vehicles. The Bord Gáis Networks project seeks to address this and aims to provide the necessary infrastructure at strategic points throughout Ireland.

“We are going to provide the infrastructure because no one else will”, says Fitzpatrick. “We have commissioned a number of trials to demonstrate the suitability of CNG in Ireland. The trials are being carried out with companies from the commercial transport target market in the dairy sector, public transport and haulage companies. The results of the trials completed to date have proven that CNG is a viable option as an alternative to traditional fuels.”

Commercial vehicles are also on the agenda at ESB. "We have one of the largest vehicle fleets in the country and our overall strategy is to improve the utilisation of that fleet and to reduce its size", says Colm De Burca, safety and sustainability manager with ESB. "The fleet is responsible for almost 50 per cent of ESB's internal carbon footprint and reducing transport emissions is a key element in meeting our carbon reduction target. In 2006 we had 2,800 vehicles of all shapes and sizes and, by the end of 2013, we had reduced this to 2,000."

This has resulted in a reduction in fleet fuel consumption of over one million litres per annum, representing a 17 per cent improvement and equating to a saving on the ESB Networks fuel bill of €1.8 million per annum.

Real-time communication

This has been achieved through a combination of common sense and the implementation of a fleet management system which minimises unnecessary trips and optimises vehicle usage through technologies such as real-time communication with vehicles while they are on the road. “This enables us to schedule callouts much better”, De Burca points out. “It has also delivered considerable safety improvements and helped improve driver behaviour. We have introduced electric vehicles to the fleet as well and now have 45 – that makes it one of the largest electric vehicle fleets in Europe. Our plan is ultimately to have 10 per cent of the fleet accounted for by electric vehicles.”

John Power, director general of Engineers Ireland, adds: "These projects are examples of innovations in the energy and environment space that will contribute to a more sustainable transport industry.

“The Engineers Ireland Excellence Awards, which takes place in November, recognises the engineering required to complete these type of projects and the best engineering talent in Ireland.”