It seems like only yesterday that Sir Vince Cable, the then Business Secretary, opened a £350million bioethanol plant on the banks of the River Humber in Hull on a warm day in July 2013.
Lauded on that day as the largest of its kind in Europe, the Vivergo Fuels plant turns feed wheat into bioethanol which is blended with petrol to reduce carbon emissions, and high protein animal feed to substitute for less sustainable imported soy. Producing 420million litres of bioethanol a year, it is the country’s biggest buyer of animal feed-grade wheat, boosting the fortunes of almost 900 farms that supply into the plant; as well as the largest single production site for animal feed, supplying 500,000 tonnes to more than 800 farms across the UK.
With around 150 staff directly employed by Vivergo – an official partner of the Government’s Northern Powerhouse scheme - and more than 3,000 supported in the wider economy, this is the kind of operation that the UK should be holding up as a prime example of success in its sector and a beacon of hope in a post-Brexit Britain.
But today the plant sits idle, after a painful business decision to halt production due to increasing losses after repeated Government failure to boost promised demand for biofuels in regular petrol and diesel. Within this artificially constrained market, Vivergo’s margins have fallen as bioethanol prices lowered significantly in the absence of a positive Government announcement to provide resilience.
Although maintenance work is being undertaken at the plant to sustain employment levels in the short-term, no timetable has been put on when – or if – it might reopen.
The other major UK bioethanol producer, Ensus, is also located in the North of England and has been off-line for three of its six year operation. The sector, one of very few that can hold out a hope of reducing transport emissions quickly and easily, is an area in need of focus and support.
The companies have repeatedly called on the Government to make good its commitment to support the sector as part of a positive industrial strategy, but the continuing absence of UK policies supporting biofuels, including the introduction of E10 – a blend of petrol with 10 per cent bioethanol which is common elsewhere in the world - leaves this promising green industry on its knees.
Mark Chesworth, Vivergo’s MD, was correct when he recently told The Financial Times that the Government has focused too heavily on creating an industrial strategy to back future technologies while failing to implement existing policies.
Although the Department for Transport, after years of delay, has now said it will support an increase of renewables in road transport to 9.75 per cent by 2020, the promised legislation has still not appeared and it has yet to commit to E10. Sales of petrol vehicles are on the up and are only expected to rise further in light of continued negative headlines connected to diesel, whilst the Government’s push on electric vehicles is a longer-term solution, so cleaning up petrol now has to be a priority.
Already available across Europe, North America and Australasia, E10 would be the emissions equivalent of removing 700,000 vehicles from UK roads. To put that in perspective, this volume is equivalent to a traffic jam stretching from London to Moscow. Furthermore, it requires no consumer behavioural change – they still fill up at their usual pump – and it has been the optimal fuel for all new cars since 2016.
There’s no doubt that E10 represents one of the quickest, easiest and most cost effective ways of decarbonising transport and tackling air pollution.
However, the Government has failed to act. Such time wasting is unfathomable, not just for the future of those concerned about their jobs, the £1billion investments in the UK bioethanol industry that we must not squander, and the British farmers reliant on this domestic market, but also for our ambitions to improve our environment and public health.
We owe it to our future generations to give them the best opportunities. And only by supporting sectors like the British bioethanol industry to succeed will this be possible.