The price of business: fuel costs and European OB

The price of petrol across European countries has risen by an average of about 8% over the last two months. At the same time, diesel prices have also increased significantly meaning that it is no longer cheaper than petrol in many places, with prices ranging from €1.15 (Luxembourg) to €1.62 (UK) per litre. Will Strauss reports on the impact rising fuel costs are having on the European OB industry.

The outside broadcast truck is a thirsty beast. Regardless of whether it’s being used to cover sport, music or any other live event, its energy consumption is far from inconsiderable, thanks in the main to the long distances it travels between venues. This is certainly true for trucks that operate in the US but, while geographically small countries like the UK are not heavily affected, it is also the case for OB units that are used for pan-European coverage.

And it’s starting to become a bit of a problem.

Up until recently, this inefficiency and thirst for fuel had been very much lumped into the ‘green’ category, in that the increased gas emissions were more of an issue for the environment than the fuel usage was for the business operating the truck. However, with petrol and diesel prices at an all-time high, it’s now starting to have an impact on the bottom line too.

The upshot of all this is that some OB facilities providers are losing out. And it’s not just a few pence or a couple of Euros, particularly when journeys are thousands of kilometers.

Luc Geoffroy, the chief technology officer for Euromedia France, spells out the problem: “With 11 OB vans we do approximately 300,000 km a year. If you add in the utility truck, it’s 600,000km. The average fuel consumption is 40 litres per 100 km so we burn roughly 240,000 litres. Based on today’s price of €1.3 per litre the cost is €312,000 a year.”

And it’s a cost the company has to swallow itself.

“You can try to quote for a higher transport cost,” explains Timo Koch, the managing director of Rotselaar-based Outside Broadcast. “But at the end of the day, you may have to deduct it from your hardware cost or margin.”

Other operators, however, do end up passing that cost on to clients. A spokesperson for SIS Livetold SVG that the company now has “had to pass these costs onto our customers where in the past the cost for the fuel was included in the hire of the vehicle.”

Richard Yeowart, the chairman of Arena Television – which operates both OB trucks and filming helicopters, says his company is unable to put up fuel charges on short running contracts, but it’s a different story when it comes to extended deals.

“With longer terms contracts we have a fuel escalator built in,” he says. “But we are out of pocket on some of our 3 to 4 year long contracts due to fuel increases and prices will have to be reviewed upwards at renewal.”

Luckily it’s not that way for everyone. In fact, some companies don’t see the price of fuel as a problem at all, especially those that do most of their work in the UK.

“For us, it doesn’t really have any impact,” says CTV managing director Barry Johnstone. “It’s much more of an issue in States. Where there is an impact for us, is if we have to hire a generator. We get charged more, as it runs on a great big tank of diesel, so we have to pass that cost on to the client.”

Increasing efficiency

That said, whether it’s a major headache or not, there is clearly work to be done to improve fuel efficiency in the OB sector. There are things that can be done to counteract the cost of rising fuel bills, however. SIS Live, for example, is currently putting its drivers through CPC lorry training and one of the modules is Safe, Environmental and Fuel Efficient driving.

And Outside Broadcast turns down certain long distance jobs, from time-to-time, “due to low global budgets that are not in line with the time away and or transportation costs.”

And then there’s the trucks themselves. Arena has moved its fleet over to the more efficient Euro 5 engines and, whenever possible, is moving trucks directly from one location to another, rather than driving them back to base. This process is facilitated by the use of a small van that moves kit backwards and forwards from Arena HQ when the equipment load needs to be changed.

The composition of the OB truck can also be made more efficient, although the jury is very much out on whether or not it is worth the extra cash. Andy Unsworth, the technical director of Leeds-based FAL Systems which builds and integrates trucks for Arena, has recently been looking into this very subject. He argues that it is possible to make OB trucks use less fuel – by making them lighter – but the cost of the materials needed to do that is prohibitive.

“On the bigger trucks the amount of space and weight we can save, it makes so little difference to the fuel consumption it’s just not worth it,” he says. “It can be as little as half a percent while the cost of building an OB truck out of the lighter materials is astronomical. Sometimes it can be as much as 100% more than standard materials. So, unless you’re a big fleet operator, the gains are not significant enough. In the US, it would be a different story.”

Unsworth does counter that by stating that smaller, lighter OB vans and uplink trucks can benefit. Not least because making them lighter can move them into a lower road tax bracket, which also saves the OB company money.

Gas emissions are another consideration. Koch says Outside Broadcast recently bought a new chassis for a truck and opted for a slightly more expensive model that had lower CO2 emissions. It might not use significantly less fuel but it will mean a reduction in the cost of emission charges in cities, like London, where there is a low emission zone.

To drive a specialist heavy diesel vehicle in the London’s Low Emission Zone (LEZ) without paying a daily charge of up to £200 per day, the unit needs to meet certain emissions standards. And many OB trucks don’t meet those standards. That is one area that CTV is very keen to investigate. “Emission charges can hurt,” says Johnstone, “Especially when you have 40 odd trucks. That certainly helps to concentrate the mind.”

As result, Johnstone says, his company may end up renewing his fleet that bit quicker.

Alternative fuels

What about alternative fuels? Outside Broadcast has looked at using solar panels. “Unfortunately,” shrugs Koch, “we need so much power that a roof full of panels could only run one air conditioning system amongst the 25 we need, so it isn’t really worth it.”

So there you have it. Anecdotally at least, while there are some solutions for reigning in costs and helping the environment, the genuinely ‘green’ OB truck that is cheap-to-run and cost effective to build is still some years away.

Hope does spring eternal however.

Sony, as an example, is sponsoring a doctorate at Surrey University that will re-evaluate the overall design of an OB set-up, including both the vehicle and the broadcasting equipment used. The EngD in ‘Sustainability for Engineering and Energy Systems’ is a four-year programme that will “provide at least the intellectual challenge of a PhD.”

Once underway, the sponsored participant will design a methodology to improve overall environmental performance before, during and after an OB. From a European perspective, with diesel costing anything up to €1.64 a litre, it cannot come soon enough.

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