Rob Shuttleworth  
When it comes to industrial environments, which could be in rural or off-grid locations, it is important to assess the requirements for a convenient, versatile, low-carbon and easy-to-install energy source. Switching to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) can deliver both financial and environmental benefits, argues Rob Shuttleworth.

With the energy landscape changing so rapidly, industrial organisations could be forgiven for feeling bombarded with messages about the most effective power solution. However, while the role for renewables is certainly growing, they are not necessarily the solution for every circumstance.

Over the coming 15 years, the UK will need to make fundamental changes to the way in which industry is powered if the country is to meet its 2030 carbon reduction and renewables targets. Business as usual is simply not an option and every sector of the economy will need to take steps towards a more sustainable, secure and competitive energy model.

The story is the same across much of Europe, with different markets trialling a variety of technologies to deliver on their energy needs. Of course, concerns over fossil fuels are directing the energy spotlight onto renewables; however, these do not suit all environments and will need to be assessed in terms of reliability and the types of demands the technology will need to address.

Indeed, while governments are concerned with meeting global targets, for the majority of businesses and industrial units the challenge is on a more local level. Most organisations are focused towards delivering cost savings, ensuring process efficiencies and removing the risk of unplanned downtime.

The opportunity for LPG

With that in mind, and when weighing up the various options for powering the industrial sector, it is important that specifiers do not overlook the potential advantages of affordable and available conventional energies, such as LPG, a low-carbon fuel that is portable, widely available, easy to install and competitively priced.

LPG, a mixture of propane (C3H8) and butane (C4H10), is derived during the exploration of natural gas fields and is also produced during the oil refining process. A lower-carbon alternative to solid and liquid fossil fuels, its combustion emits 33% less CO2 than coal and 17% less than heating oil.

In addition, LPG emits almost no black carbon (BC), which is the second largest contributor to global warming after CO2 and a significant contributor to poor air quality. LPG’s low levels of particle and NOx emissions also make it ideal for both indoor and outdoor use.

The lowest-carbon fuel available in non-mains gas areas, LP Gas has been used within commercial applications for the past 40 years. It is a particularly attractive option for larger organisations that have to report on their carbon emissions.

When it comes to efficient energy sources, LPG has a proven track record over other energy options for commercial customers and, thanks to its availability, it will have an important role to play in reducing harmful emissions in the future. The fact that LPG will be in plentiful supply for many years to come adds security for any commercial building energy managers.

The UK produces more than five million tonnes of LPG each year, with more than 50% going to industrial and commercial uses. The combination of the highly efficient heating technologies being rolled out to commercial markets for both space and process heating, coupled with the fact that LPG, as a by-product of the gas industry, is widely available, extremely reliable and becoming increasingly price-competitive, makes it particularly advantageous.

Case study: UK packaging site

The benefits that LPG can bring to a commercial property were highlighted recently with an installation that was carried out at a packaging manufacturer to reduce its carbon footprint and subsequently its energy costs. After looking at all of the options available, the business decided to switch from oil to LPG.

One of the key company sites is located in an off-mains area and had previously relied on an oil-powered fuel system, which had not only begun to prove expensive, but had also heavily increased the CO2 output. By switching to LPG, the company was able to reduce the fuel costs by around 15%-20% per year and reduce the associated CO2 emissions by up to 29%. In just two months, fuel costs were lowered by £42,000 ($64,000).

A natural choice for the industrial sector

Because of these green characteristics and the other benefits that it can offer, LPG is fast becoming a fuel of choice for industrial properties and for buildings off-grid where the natural gas distribution network is not available. Throughout Europe, LPG has a flexible and decentralised distribution network which reaches beyond energy grids. It can also be used in small-scale gas networks and as part of a hybrid system to complement intermittent renewables, such as solar photovoltaics (PV).

Indeed, the advances in cogeneration technology are now delivering even greater efficiencies and offering a much more reliable and economically-viable source of combined power and heat to organisations throughout the world. The integration of LPG with low-carbon and renewable technologies to combine a reliable year-round heating supply with further carbon and cost savings is therefore an increasingly attractive option for commercial properties.

This is especially the case given that carbon emissions have become increasingly expensive since the introduction of the UK’s Carbon Reduction Commitment for larger businesses and the Climate Change Levy (CCL), which is charged on all commercial sites. However, it is also worth noting that the CCL is not payable on LPG installations smaller than 4000 litres.

Case study: Calor LPG and DXC heaters improve yield

Poultry business F&H Panton Brothers replaced a direct-fired heating system with an LPG-fuelled indirect system to save on running costs and improve chicken welfare.

David Panton, joint MD of the business, said: ‘Keeping the poultry houses warm is vital. Modern hybrid birds are like Formula 1 racing cars and need treating with care. We need a reliable and cost-effective heating system; any loss of heating at the wrong time would be catastrophic.

‘When I looked at different systems, one of my most important considerations was both the cost and continuity of fuel. In the 45 years we have been using LPG, we have never been let down on a delivery.’

The practical considerations of installing LPG

LPG is a very reliable source of energy and because it has such a high yield, it is easy to keep a long-lasting supply on-site. However, if you are looking to add LPG storage to the site, you need to consider the fact that for larger commercial installations, the tanks and all fittings need to be protected by a security fence at least 1.8 metres high. In addition to being able to keep LPG on-site, the LPG suppliers all have national storage and a supply infrastructure that ensures they are well placed to meet demand throughout the year.

In addition, suppliers typically own, and are therefore responsible for, the upkeep and maintenance of the LPG tank installation. This means that each time a delivery is made, the tank is checked by the driver and, periodically, the installation is checked by a qualified engineer. Essentially, this means that the tanks are one less thing to worry about.

The global perspective

While world leaders continue to talk about the need to develop new energy solutions, LPG is available now and can provide a solution to a wide variety of heating and power needs throughout the commercial and domestic environment. The development of new applications for LPG is key to ensuring that the plentiful supply of the gas is utilised. This is where the industrial sector comes into play.

By investing in LPG as part of a wider cogeneration approach, industrial users are not only able to benefit from the environmental and cost savings, but also deliver significant health and employee safety advantages. As an example, more than four million people die each year due to poor air quality caused by using wood as a fuel for cooking; a figure that could be dramatically reduced with the substitution of LPG.

There is a need for comprehensive technology research and development to make the sector more competitive but also to ensure that increasing numbers of individuals and employees are able to benefit from the advantages that LP Gas can bring.

Case study: Tofu and tempeh production in Indonesia

Tofu and tempeh are fundamental to the Indonesian diet, where they are a staple source of affordable protein. Traditionally produced using firewood to heat soybeans, the health and environmental impacts have recently been called into question – with LPG suggested as the solution.

Since 2009, more than 1000 producers have switched from firewood to LPG as part of a lease-to-own financing scheme supported by humanitarian agency Mercy Corps.

The immediate benefits have included time savings of 90 minutes per day, cleaner kitchen and end products which are able to be sold on a wider scale, mitigating the risk of firewood scarcity and better air quality and health conditions for the workers.

Based on past experience, it is anticipated that a switch to LPG could deliver a 75% reduction in emissions, equivalent to 25,000 tonnes of CO2 each year for every 100 enterprises. In addition, adopting LPG should also achieve a 15% reduction in water waste.

The future – gas heat pumps

As the current grid capacity limitations and a lack of cabling and infrastructure make it difficult to envisage an all-electric future in the short-term, attention has turned to the use of gas heat pumps to maximise on the impact of off-grid technologies like LPG. Indeed, gas-driven engines can be particularly well suited to operate in a cogeneration environment and any technology designed for natural gas will work just as well for LPG.

Various solutions have been developed, with the European market specifically investing in gas-fired engines, as well as absorption and adsorption technologies. While the size and capital cost of these products had hindered take-up to date in the domestic market, commercial gas heat pumps are available in the UK today. The industry is currently experiencing a new generation of research and development which is set to coincide with a growth in the market over the coming five years.

The time is right for LPG

It is clear that the industrial sector has a large role to play when it comes to helping the UK, Europe and the wider developing world to meet ambitious carbon reduction and renewable deployment targets. However, as a complement to renewable energy and energy efficiency measures, it is apparent that certain conventional fuels like LPG still have a distinct area of responsibility as part of the development of a more sustainable energy future.

Indeed, market conditions are currently favourable for the type of onsite gas-powered cogeneration to which LPG is particularly suited. With LPG production forecast to increase over the coming decades, stability of supply is clearly a selling point. As technology develops and the efficiency of engines and pumps increases, the arguments for introducing LPG into the industrial sector continue to stack up.

More than 264 million tonnes of LPG are consumed globally each year by more than three billion consumers. Despite this, the potential for growth is phenomenal and the cost and environmental savings for organisations that invest in LPG cogeneration can be significant.

We are seeing many commercial businesses looking to take advantage of the low-carbon properties of LPG to help them meet their targets. LPG has a low carbon-to-hydrogen ratio, which means that it will generate lower amounts of CO2, while producing the same amount of heat as alternative options. As energy efficiency continues to be a hot topic, there is no doubt that many more businesses will realise the benefits that LPG can offer across a wide range of commercial applications.

Rob Shuttleworth is chief executive of the UK Liquefied Petroleum Gas Association (UKLPG)