Green light for path to UK’s first ‘electric motorway’

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Scania lorry
Image supplied courtesy of SCANIA

UK ambitions of achieving net zero emissions by 2050 moved a step closer today with the government backing a landmark transport project involving scientists at Heriot-Watt University.

The UK Electric Road System (ERS) Consortium representing academia, industry and public sector bodies, is to lead the UK’s first ever study on the electrification of long range vehicles with dynamic charging, using overhead wires on motorways. They have received funding to carry out this study as part of the £20m set aside for zero emission road freight trials under the recently-announced Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP).

Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) currently emit 18% of all road vehicle CO2 emissions, despite only representing 1.2% of the total number of vehicles on the road and 5% of the total miles driven. They remain, however, an essential tenant to the health of the UK economy, transporting 98% of the country’s food, consumer and agricultural products.

Professor Phil Greening, Deputy Director of the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, a joint initiative between Heriot-Watt University and Cambridge University, which is part of the ERS Consortium, wants to move away from the traditional fossil fuel-based model in favour of electric green energy.

The Heriot-Watt team, Professor Greening explains, is using sophisticated computer models to locate the best site to build a real-world demonstrator whilst also ensuring the logistics needs are reflected in future trials.

He adds: “Making sure that the ERS fulfils the needs of the logistics sector is vitally important if we are to achieve a rapid transition to Net Zero.

“Heriot-Watt’s expertise in building virtual worlds allows us to use computer models to make sure the preferred solution is future proofed and fit for purpose.”

In the UK Government’s own Transport Decarbonisation Plan, it identifies the road freight industry as in need of innovation.

To aid in this effort, ‘Electric road systems’, using the Siemens Mobility ‘ehighway’ technology, has been proposed by the consortium as the fastest, lowest carbon and most cost-effective route to decarbonising the road freight industry and delivering cleaner air.

They will begin their nine-month feasibility study later this month, which is hoped will be the forerunner to a scheme that aims to see the UK’s major roads served by overhead lines by the 2030s.

eHighways allow specially-adapted trucks to attach to the overhead wires and run using the electricity, similar to rail and trolley-bus systems. The trucks come equipped with a battery that charges while they are in motion so they can detach to both overtake vehicles and reach their final destination with zero emissions from start to finish.

This feasibility study will consider a stretch of the M180 for a future demonstrator, although site selection will be finalised during the study. The partners plan to take the lessons learned from elsewhere in Europe where similar projects are already underway, and provide technical, economic and environmental recommendations for installing a proof-of-concept system with a bigger demonstration fleet.

Professor David Cebon, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, said: “Our previous research says that overhead catenary power will provide the lowest cost, lowest carbon, and most rapidly deployable solution to decarbonise long-haul road freight in the UK. This project will test the concept at the next level of detail. Moreover, the technologies this consortium is working on could be deployed in most countries once demonstrated, supporting the global move towards greener logistics.”

Research by the consortium has found that initial investments into new vehicles by the operators could be recouped within 18 months, due to lower energy costs, and the electrification infrastructure would pay back investors in 15 years.

A fully-operational electric road system across the UK would be expected to create tens of thousands of jobs across a range of green industries, with around 200,000 new electric trucks needing to be built over a 10-15 year period. This will also provide an opportunity to completely revamp the UK truck manufacturing industry and its supply chains, future-proofing it by accelerating fleet digitalisation; a key lesson learned across the industry as it recovers from the 2020 pandemic’s disruption.

The ERS consortium has received funding based on its expertise in sustainable transport and including a mix of green mobility leaders and SMEs.

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Craig McManamon

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