‘Keeping it Clean’ with Robert Anderson, Programme Manager at Cenex (Centre of Excellence for Low Carbon and Fuel Cell Technologies)

Part 11 of ‘keeping it clean’, a series of interviews which shine a light on people making significant impact in the world through driving sustainability and clean technology.

Robert has been working at Cenex (Centre of Excellence for Low Carbon and Fuel Cell Technologies) for 9 years and is on a mission to help fleets achieve Net Zero!

He’s an experienced Programme Manager with a background in managing and delivering a range of low carbon vehicle R&D programmes. At Cenex, he’s responsible for both the programme management and delivery of their fleet consultancy services portfolio.

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Robert completing the Spartan Trifecta in 2017

So, EVs.. where do we start?

A lot of us in the industry have lived our lives in a bit of a bubble. We know EVs, understand them, have grown up with them, know charging infrastructure, know how it all works!

Outside of this bubble there is still a lot of education and awareness raising needed around low carbon, EVs, and really anything that requires businesses and individuals to make what they see as quite a dramatic change. We know it’s not difficult but need to be aware that many people don’t, and talk in terms they understand rather than blinding them with science.

What do you love about the industry you work in?

Its willingness to innovate; but not just the large manufacturers. There’s a host of small businesses throughout the UK who are developing some really innovative products; they are the really exciting part of the industry!

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In the clean v’s cost war, is clean now winning, or are we not there yet?

With the advent of clean air zones and the UK’s Net Zero target clean is starting to have a bigger impact, but for many cost remains the primary driver. There’s still a bit of a disconnect around the cost element of clean, especially around EVs.

As an example, an EV costs more upfront so when you look at the cost of a Peugeot 208 electric it’s substantially more expensive when you look at list price or lease cost, but once you start to build in the fuel cost reduction, cost to ‘fuel’ an EV compared to an ICE vehicle, maintenance reductions, and tax benefits you will save 20–30% over the vehicles lifetime.

It is unfortunately the case that although most Fleet Managers understand the total cost of ownership, finance teams tend to focus on upfront or lease costs. This is where the disconnect comes in and until that is overcome cost will continue to be the main driver.

In reality cost should always be a factor, but it must go hand in hand with clean. At Cenex we do a lot of work to find the areas of the business where things connect on a cost, environmental and operational level. Can the vehicle do the job? Does it save you money? Does it lower your emissions? If you can achieve 2 of these you can normally find a way to make the 3rd happen. This will become easier and easier as EVs are expected to reach cost parity with their ICE counterparts within the next couple of years!

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How much impact can these switches make?

Even the smallest switch can make a big difference; doing nothing is not an option. Some of the work we do at Cenex is on a fairly large scale so can make a significant impact to a business. We recently reviewed a fleet of over 2000 vehicles from cars to vans to trucks, and identified that over 40% of the fleet could switch to electric or other low carbon fuels saving them over £5 million over 5 years. That’s a substantial cost saving, with the added benefit of saving and hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon in the process!

What are the biggest myths surrounding EVs?

i) The cars don’t have the range… They do! The average electric car available in the UK has 180 miles+ range, which is sufficient for most people almost all of the time.

ii) EVs are still dirty — all you’re doing is polluting in a different way… The growth of renewables within the electricity grid is growing — the grid is continuously getting cleaner and the UK hasn’t used coal in over 48 days! Unlike petrol or diesel, which will remain dirty, your EV will get cleaner year on year.

iii) EVs are more damaging over their life normal vehicles… The average electric car is already three times more efficient than its fossil-fuelled equivalent, even when you take the manufacturing process into account.

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Back to you… What inspired you to choose this career path?

I often class myself as a very lucky failed Marine Biologist! I had a massive fascination with the ocean as a kid; I so wanted to be the next Jacques Cousteau.

While attending the University of Stirling to study Marine Biology I became more interested in the environmental science courses they ran, so left with a BSc and a strong interest in the impact of humans on the environment. This led to me studying for a Masters in Environmental Pollution Control Management at Heriot-Watt. During my year there I became interested in lifecycle assessment; understanding the impacts of a product both within the manufacturing process as well as upstream and downstream. I ended up doing some really interesting work at Queens University in Belfast, where I spent 2 years working on lifecycle assessment as a tool to help businesses manage their environmental impact.

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Photo by Dimitri Iakymuk on Unsplash

Let’s talk about your career… has it gone to plan?

Well, at no point did I ever think I’d end up where I am today! That said I’ve always been open to taking opportunities and seeing where life led me.

After Belfast I joined AEA Technology in Oxfordshire to help set up a lifecycle assessment department, which never actually got the funding to go ahead. So, I needed something to work on, and that something was transport, and I guess you could say it’s grown from there. It was at a time within the fleet sector where there was this strange new fuel called diesel. How things change! We are now going through a similar shift into the world of low emission vehicles.

After AEA I moved to Cenex which meant going from a huge profit driven organisation; a tiny cog in a big machine, to Cenex a much smaller organisation, now with 35 staff. I’m enjoying being a bigger cog in their machine.

Can you tell me a bit more about Cenex?

Cenex was originally set up as a research organisation through Government seed funding to manage a host of R&D projects. At the time there was a disconnect between technology developers and end users. Technology firms were keen to get their product to market but fleets and drivers didn’t have enough information to make that decision. We sat in the middle doing on the ground R&D to help companies understand how low emission technologies could help fleets both in terms of costs and emissions. This involved huge trials across cars, vans and trucks — electric, hydrogen, compressed natural gas and biomethane to build a knowledge base of their impact within business operations.

We then pivoted to become a not for profit organisation focusing on low emission transport technologies and associated infrastructure. So rather than working on behalf of the Government, we’ve expanded our reach to operate on 2 levels: running research and development projects; and delivering consultancy work for public and private sector organisations.

I’m really enjoying what I’m doing, but there’s still no real plan!

Lower emissions… what are you doing to support this and how difficult is it when it comes to diverse fleets?

Helping businesses make the transition to net zero can be difficult … there will never be a one size fits all solution. Electric cars alone are not the solution, they are an answer to one question, but not an answer to every question. For me it’s about getting the right mix of solutions. At times cycling is the best option, at times cargo bikes for local deliveries, and if you do need to use a car or van then go electric!

The bigger questions come as the vehicles themselves get bigger. When you start to go up the weight categories you have to ask what fuel can we use to reduce the emissions? This is a much more nuanced question; electric could work but so could range extenders or biomethane. Whilst none of these options are straight forward, they are still possible — even within 38/44 tonne trucks! Then we can talk about hydrogen, which remains in its infancy in some areas, but it’s likely to have a big impact within the heavier vehicle sector.

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What else peaks your interest?

Non-road mobile machinery (NRMM) such as diggers, dumper trucks, mini excavators, building site generators, cranes, etc. Currently there are no official emission limits on them — it’s coming but not for a few years. I think this will be the next big area impacted by legislation and there’ll certainly be a huge need for technology to support this.

Mobility as a service — is it the next big thing?

The growth of mobility or transport as a service is an area which was starting to take off pre Covid; lots of interest in mobility hubs, trials underway of e-scooters, electric car clubs, electric pool cars, the list goes on.

Unfortunately, I think with Covid-19, the sharing sector has taken a bit of a hit, but I still believe that the concept of mobility/ transport as a service will prevail. Currently your vehicle spends 90%+ of its time not doing anything. Do you even need one?

We’ve seen an exponential growth in cycling in recent months. Is this pandemic making us see what’s needed to decarbonise our journeys and make these changes? Hopefully, a silver lining of this tragic time will be it helping society as a whole to be more active and more ready to change.

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Robert at the top of Ben Nevis at sun set, during the three peaks challenge he did last year.

What role is Cenex playing in the road to Net Zero?

For some instances there will always be the need for a vehicle, but in order for the UK to meet its net zero target by 2050 we have to start innovating and at Cenex we are committed to supporting this. We cannot simply replace ICE with electric, no doubt this would shift things from an emissions problem to a congestion problem.

We must think bigger — How will we get around? What’s the best option for me to get to where I’m going? Do I actually need to go there every day?

What else is coming?

Autonomous vehicles?

This seems to be the hot topic, but I’m yet to be persuaded that our society and road architecture is quite ready… I think it’ll come, but not yet. However, the autonomous delivery pods being trialled in Milton Keynes are interesting and could have a huge role to play in last mile delivery. As zero emission zones start to proliferate those sorts of ideas and innovations are likely to take off.

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Drones?

Not quite my bag, but they are certainly an interesting area. I’m still to be convinced by them, but I know that Amazon have been trialling them for deliveries. There are definite advantages for drone use within emergency and humanitarian services.

How can organisations have the biggest impact on their fleet carbon footprint?

Don’t do nothing!

With the UK Government’s 2050 Net Zero target and the forthcoming ban on selling petrol and diesel cars in 2035 organisations need to start looking at their transport options. Waiting for the next best thing will get you nowhere; there are proven low emission technologies available now that will work. Do something now before you get left behind.

Thank you Robert, it was great to hear a totally different perspective on the industry!

Connect with us to keep the clean discussion going… and if you would like to feature in the series, do get in touch! 🌏

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Written by

Avid Traveller. Sustainability Advocate. London based Recruiter. Sustainability and Cleantech Writer. Cyclist. Muay Thai Enthusiast.

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