Preaching to the unconverted
Sean O'Grady mourns the loss of grants for fuel conversion and looks to the future
Tuesday 29 March 2005
You may not know it, but this Friday, April Fool's Day, will be a black day for green motoring. In two days, the Government's Powershift scheme will end. This was an under-publicised system of grants of about £1,000 to £1,500, for people who buy or convert cars to LPG (liquefied petroleum gas), CNG (compressed natural gas) or hybrid petrol/electric power.
Powershift will be replaced by a less generous regime, the "Low Carbon Vehicle programme". Virtually all LPG and CNG cars will be excluded, although hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic IMA will most likely still qualify.
The main drawback with the new system is that it doesn't exist yet. Thanks to the hash that the EU Commission and our own dear Department for Transport have made of things, there are now no government grants available for green cars.
But buy or convert in Scotland and you'll still get a grant via the Autogas+ system. Why the Scottish Executive can stay green when the UKDepartment for Transport can't is a mystery. Perhaps those well-known Scots, Alastair Darling and Gordon Brown, know the answer.
What a mess, and what a pity, because LPG and CNG are viable options. I found driving a bi-fuel CNG Volvo V70, for example, was no different from driving its conventional sibling, for better or worse, and Volvo tells me that its CNG tank is even stronger than a petrol one, so safety shouldn't be an issue. LPG has the advantage over CNG because there are many more filling stations for it (about 1,200 to just 25). That could radically change for CNG, however, with a new idea called "Gasfill", where you fit a pump in your garage, connect it to your domestic gas supply and, bingo, no fuel duty. The Treasury has its eye on this - but how will it be able to police it?
The important point is that most LPG and CNG systems are bi-fuel, so you can run the car just on petrol if you wish, and there's no extra risk of running out of fuel. Filling up at a CNG station is a bit of a palaver because you need a special key and account.
It's also a pity that these bi-fuel cars often use tyre sealants instead of a proper spare, to make room for the gas tank, as I found when I got a nasty puncture and had to trek several miles to Kwik-Fit for a new tyre. You also can't go through the Channel Tunnel in a bi-fuel car, but I'm told this may be about to change.
Despite the abolition of Powershift, a CNG or LPG bi-fuel car can be a good idea. LPG and CNG are roughly half the cost of petrol, with slightly worse consumption. You can cut your fuel bills in half by converting, and the Chancellor has guaranteed that differential until 2008. So, the bigger your consumption, the greater the savings. Bi-fuel is a great way to run a bigger-engined car. Or am I preaching to the converted?
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