How animal feed leftovers could power your car

A worker at the Vivergo plant at Hull, which turns surplus what into bioethanol fuel.
A worker at the Vivergo plant at Hull, which turns surplus what into bioethanol fuel.
  • Energy: Turning surplus animal-feed into renewable fuel sounds like a sure-fire winner. But, as Mark Casci discovered at Vivergo Fuels, life is not that simple.
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It may seem like a long time ago now but, during its construction phase, the Vivergo Fuels plant at Hessle near Hull was second only to the London Olympic Park among the UK’s biggest development projects.

The bioethanol plant is an impressive realisation of modern industrial might, reminiscent of the chemical factories seen along the banks of the River Tees and Forth.

The £350m bioethanol plant on the Humber Estuary came into existence in 2008 and, to the layman, is a shining example of how green energy should operate.

At the risk of simplifying a highly technical and integrated industrial operation, the Vivergo plant takes in animal feed grade wheat and converts it into bioethanol, a fuel which can be used to power petrol-engine cars.

Throw into the mix that a byproduct of the process is a high-protein animal feed and you have a renewable fuel company with a supply network that can provide considerable economic and environmental benefits.

And what a network it is: Vivergo is the biggest producer of bioethanol in the country.

The business takes in 1.1m tonnes of animal feed-grade wheat, which the nation is currently has a substantial surplus of, running to some 3-4m tonnes according to current projections.

That is then converted through a milling, brewing and distilling process to produce bioethanol and 450,000 tonnes of the high-grade animal feed as byproduct.

However, life is not so simple for Vivergo. The business, like so many involved in the green energy sector, has found itself at the mercy of shifting and inconsistent Government policies, both from London and Brussels.

It is a source of frustration for its managing director Mark Chesworth. The bioethanol his firm produces is blended into petrol, currently at a rate of up to 4.75 per cent, known in the trade as E5. That is present in the unleaded petrol that people are buying today.

For some years now, Mr Chesworth and his business partners have been aiming to roll out a higher-ratio mix with 10 per cent ethanol, or E10.

Mr Chesworth says the reduction in emissions would be equivalent to taking 180,000 cars off the road.

“The blending level in the UK has been stuck at 4.75 per cent since 2012,” he says. “I run an environmental business. We are here to decarbonise the transport industry. We have got significant air-quality issues in our cities.

“Despite some of the projections the Government has for petrol-use in the UK, we are seeing a plateauing of petrol engines. They are staying constant and diesel registrations are in decline. We are seeing petrol hybrids increasing, albeit at a very slow rate.

“It feels like liquid fossil fuel is going to be in the market for a very long time. We can reduce its impact by creating the new blending levels.

“So we need an effective roll-out of E10. We need to get beyond 85 per cent penetration across the UK. Belgium recently launched E10 with no problems.”

Vivergo’s fight to increase the amount of bioethanol had been looking in rude health. A recent Department for Transport (DfT) document showed that the Government was minded to increase the blending of ethanol in petrol from 4.75 to 9.75.

However, the joy has been short-lived, with a fresh proposal to limit the amount of crops used to produce ethanol at either zero per cent or two per cent under review by DfT officials.

A crop cap of either of these two targets would, at best, severely impact on the UK’s ability to effectively implement E10 at pumps.

Mr Chesworth pulls no punches in his assessment of the sector’s prospects if the targets are imposed.

“It could risk plant closures and job losses within those plants themselves and around the wider supply chain.

“We are clearly extremely concerned – it is still open to consultation, so we have the chance to ask the question of their preference for two per cent.

“It flies in the face of climate ambitions, Northern Powerhouse ambitions and the Industrial Strategy as we can see it. There is also the question of timings, and I am also concerned about the constant prevarication.”

Here Mr Chesworth is referring to several shifts from Government concerning its energy policy, a theme that readers of this latest edition of Yorkshire Vision will have detected running across most sectors.

Referencing the Government’s newly-introduced Industrial Strategy, he says: “This doesn’t feel like Government taking a more active role.

“We are positive about a higher blending level but are concerned should the Government implement its current preference (for a crop cap). It really does feel like a huge own goal.

“We work with a number of educational institutions around the country. We work with Hull University and the likes of Bangor University.

“We have an apprentice scheme, an intern scheme and a graduate scheme. We work with a lot of people to bring and develop high-skill jobs in the region.

“That is very much aligned with the Industrial Strategy, which talks about growing skills, supporting inward investment and cultivating world-leading centres. We think what we are calling for in terms of a roll-out of that particular fuel type will enable us to continue to support and grow our ambitions beyond just climate, but also support growth in the North, particularly here in Hull.”