Plans revealed to electrify motorways for HGVs

Plans have been revealed for building a network of overhead cables along 7,500 km of the UK’s major road network, which could electrify approximately 65 per cent heavy goods vehicle (HGV) travel, at an estimated cost of £19.3 billion.

A report from the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight (CSRF) said this could be achieved by the late 2030s, and when combined with battery electrification of urban delivery vehicles, the ‘electric road’ network would almost completely decarbonise UK road freight.

In July 2019, the government revised its Climate Change Act to mandate net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The report pointed out that while land-based freight is an essential service sector, it is also a significant source of greenhouse gases and noxious emissions. HGVs carry 90 per cent of the UK’s goods, so a zero-emissions alternative to the traditional diesel-powered HGV is vital if the UK is to achieve its net-zero carbon ambition.

An ‘Electric Road System’ is the primary candidate to deliver the energy needed by the UK’s long-distance HGV fleet, according to the CSRF. "This approach is scalable and quick to deploy, using known and available technologies, existing delivery bodies such as National Grid, Highways England and the UK’s construction industry and infrastructure supply chains: creating significant employment."

Truck manufacturers, including Scania, have indicated they can deliver the modified vehicles and have delivered numerous prototypes for demonstration trials around Europe.

The paper suggested that a total investment in the region of £19.3 billion would be required to electrify almost all the UK’s long haul freight vehicles, corresponding to 65 per cent of road freight movements. The remaining 35 per cent of freight movements are mainly urban deliveries that are expected to move to battery electric lorries over the next 10 years. "Work could get underway immediately with an £80 million pilot project in the North East of England."

The most mature and cost-effective technology is the overhead catenary system, with four such systems underway on public roads across Germany and Sweden that have demonstrated the feasibility of the approach, with a further demonstration being planned in Italy.

The overhead catenary system, commonplace in the railway sector, consists of a supporting structure built outside the road boundary that holds two cable systems. These wires supply the positive and negative electrical circuit that is picked up through a pantograph collector on the roof of the HGV.

The pantograph can be rapidly connected and disconnected automatically as needed. The HGV is free to leave the wires to overtake or complete its journey away from the catenary using a separate on-board battery - approximately the size of an electric car battery - providing zero tailpipe emissions at all times.

The UK Electric Motorway System project is proposed through a four-phase programme, starting with an £80 million pilot project, leveraging the lessons learnt in Sweden, Germany and Italy, to look at the policy, taxation, and implementation issues specific to the UK.

The proposed 40 km South Yorkshire pilot needs to be completed by 2025, so that the main three-phase rollout of the infrastructure can begin. Each of the construction phases of the rollout would take two to three years, plus associated time for planning, design, procurement, etc.

"Investments in pantograph electric vehicles would pay-back the vehicle operators in 18 months through lower energy costs and the electrification infrastructure could pay-back its investors in 15 years through electricity sales," argued the report, making this a unique opportunity for private finance. "The improved energy efficiency of the freight system will also create sufficient headroom in the economics for substantial government revenues through an electricity excise tax, road user charge or some other form of tax."

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