Balboni, President of Federmetano: “The sector has all the potential to overcome this emergency”
The president of the association believes that natural gas as a fuel for motor vehicles is an immediate and effective response to demands for ecologically and economically sustainable mobility, although long-term strategies are vital
Interview with LICIA BALBONI, President of Federmetano
Methane as a fuel in the automotive sector was also hit by the Covid-19 crisis. Encouraging signs are currently beginning to emerge but a far-sighted vision is needed for the future in order to exploit its huge potential. This is how Licia Balboni, President of Federmetano, outlined the situation in the wake of difficult lockdown months in the conviction an appropriate strategy will enable the sector to play an important role in the recovery and transformation of the economy under the banner of sustainability. The president of the trade association representing distributors of methane gas for automotive use first of all highlights the impact on sales: “The stringent measures concerning personal mobility implemented in response to the health emergency also had repercussions on CNG sales; distributors were faced by decreases of 95% with consequent zeroing of revenues yet unchanged personnel management costs. Personnel still had to supervise distribution centres, since it must be borne in mind that the sale of natural gas for transport is considered to be a public utility service. Federmetano sought to remedy this critical situation,” Balboni went on, “by contacting pertinent bodies, including the Ministry of Economic Development (Mise) and the Ministry of Economy and Finance (Mef), to protect and safeguard operators in the sector, to request special measures as regards personal protective equipment (ppe) and taxation (deferred payment of employee social security contributions), as well as the cancellation of the GC for road service centre distributors for the 60 days from mid-March to mid-May, for which we are still firmly demanding approval on the part of pertinent Authorities.”
Balboni also mentioned the downturn as regards registration figures: “it only need be mentioned that March 2020 posted saw peaks of -73% compared to the same month 2019 while April 2020 posted -97.5% (Unrae data – National Union of International Motor Vehicle Representatives). This more than physiological decline, given the blockade of the real world economy, affected the entire automotive sector.” Nevertheless, “in conjunction with the resumption of activities, there has also been a gradual re-awakening of the market, so much so that August 2020 saw +11.9% for CNG registrations compared to August 2019.” Balboni suggests that this is “an important sign of recovery for a sector where Italy is the European leader. We are talking about a sector chain with 20,000 employees and turnover of almost two billion euros (data source: Anfia – National Association of the Automotive Industry Supply Chain, updated as of 2017) and a distribution network that includes 1,385 points of sale (updated as of August 2020). Growth in this field over the last 10 years has posted +5% per year, supplying fuel to approximately 2% of the motor vehicles circulating in Italy (the equivalent of approximately 1,070,000 natural gas vehicles; data source: ACI – Automobile Club d’Italia 2019),” Balboni added.
The President of Federmetano believes that “although the sector must be protected and further promoted, it nevertheless already has with the necessary potential to overcome the current health emergency and its dramatic economic implications. I believe CNG may play a leading role in the currently emerging context, since it ensures an immediate and effective response to demands for sustainable mobility not only in ecological but also economic terms,” said Balboni, who then listed the reasons for such huge potential. “In addition to already well-known environmental benefits (up to 90% less particulate matter and up to 75% less NOX) that the use of CNG in motor vehicles ensures, especially as regards bio-methane (negative Co2 emissions), it is also important to highlight the lower cost of this virtuous fuel. High-performing cars are available today which can travel 100 kilometres at a cost of just 3.50 euros. We should not forget that the caloric yield of one kilo of methane is equivalent to 1.5 litres of petrol, 1.3 of diesel and even 2 litres of LPG,” she explained. “We must then also consider,” Balboni went on, “the lower purchase cost of vehicles that use methane compared to other low environmental impact systems, in addition to the possibility of using aftermarket kits to convert cars using other fuels to using CNG. People therefore have the chance to benefit from an unquestionably more ecological means of transport for a low outlay – a fundamental objective in times such as the present characterised by such great uncertainty – while aftermarket conversion kits can also be a way to achieve ecological and economic sustainability.”
The President of Federmetano also called for a “wide-ranging vision and solutions ensuring effectiveness even in the long term.” She feels that “the keyword when using European Union funds must be technological neutrality, since different drive systems can cover different travel needs.” “The current emergency,” she went on, “is the starting point for reviews and action with the aim of defining the mobility of the future. We have also seen that this awareness is also shared by many sector operators, who have continued in recent years to invest in a technology that has revolutionized a vital sector in Italy such as freight transport and its move towards LNG (liquefied natural gas), a direction also taken by local public transport (LPT).”
Balboni also pointed out that “the foresight of certain entrepreneurs has helped the community to move along the path towards sustainable mobility at a time, such as the present, when economic uncertainty risks slowing down processes that are necessary for the good of one and all.” By way of example, “in this regard, last July, just two months after the end of the lockdown, we attended the presentation by the Bologna T-Per Municipal Company of 31 new LNG buses built by Industria Italiana Autobus. It shows how environmental sustainability, accessibility and the promotion of Made in Italy are principles that can be followed to lead Italy successfully towards economic recovery. Similarly,” Balboni points out, “expansion of the LNG network by no means stopped in the face of the pandemic. Several very recent openings have brought the number of points of sale in Italy to 79. In addition, another 37 are planned. Furthermore, on Saturday 5 September we also had the pleasure of attending the official inauguration of the 70th LNG distributor service area owned by Bertelli Carburanti, a member of our association; it started business in May and was built by BRN-Bernardini, a company representing Italian excellence that is also one of our supporting members.”
The President of the association defines them as “examples of virtuous entrepreneurship for the environment as well as the economic structure of the country.” Moreover, “if we want to talk about protection and promotion of local areas, then bio-CNG and bio-LNG are excellent examples of the circular economy and by now more than ever play a leading role.” “100% renewable bio-methane fuel made entirely in Italy is today the only means of propulsion ensuring a negative CO2 balance in terms of its life cycle assessment. Considering the ‘From Well-to-Wheel’ model, bio-methane – both compressed and liquefied – ensures an overall reduction of CO2 emissions ranging from 80% to 180% (compared to conventional fuels) when respectively using renewable gas generated from the organic fraction of urban solid waste or from livestock waste, since in this process methane that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere is recovered and used as a fuel,” Balboni explains. “A full-scale revolution that would ensure zero kilometre energy independence for Italy within a virtuous circle that allows waste to be transformed into new energy,” she summed up.
“At times like the present, with all the uncertainties they entail, people need guidance to orient themselves and help them make the best possible choices,” says Balboni, highlighting the importance of cultural aspects and mentioning a number of initiatives launched in this regard. “Federmetano makes every effort to spread the culture of natural gas for transport. Its activities aim at improving awareness among people, businesses and policy-makers about the environmental and economic benefits of CNG, bio-CNG, LNG and bio-LNG. The association’s mission is not only to inform but also to train. It is no coincidence that we are promoting the use of biomethane through the Biomethane cultural project, from the earth to the earth, aimed primarily at schools and companies in the sector. It will prove to be strategic for achieving the mobility objectives set out by the EU for 2030 and 2050,” says Balboni. The President of Federmetano also focused on constant discussion “with institutions, central government and specific ministries”. One example is Federmetano’s hearing in the Senate on 10 September.
However, she concludes that “this runs the risk of not being enough”. Balboni feels that “political decision-makers must implement long-term strategies capable of supporting entrepreneurs in the sector and also resolve certain critical issues that have plagued the country for years.” “I’m thinking, for example, of updating the obsolete fleet of vehicles circulating in Italy and in this context the recent incentives for road transport are undoubtedly an important opportunity. However, it would be desirable to turn all this into part of a more structural system ensuring long-term support for operators,” Balboni suggests. “The health emergency has taught us that thinking merely in terms of ‘here and now’ weakens the economy and undermines the destiny of a country. Strategy, far-sightedness and a wide-ranging vision are needed if we are to identify effective tools and thereby avoid socio-economic collapse to turn the crisis into an opportunity for growth,” Balboni concludes.