Report advocates investment in Electric Road System to decarbonise HGVs

Mon 27 July 2020 View all news

A report written for the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight (CSRF) and funded by EPSRC says that an 'Electric Road System' is the primary candidate to deliver the energy needed by the UK’s long-distance HGV fleet for zero emissions solutions. Following the downturn due to the Covid-19 crisis, CSRF says that such a system presents an opportunity to stimulate investment and jobs, while aligning the twin goals of electrifying our major roads to quickly and cost-effectively decarbonise HGVs.

CSRF is is backed by government research grants through EPSRC and industry partners including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and John Lewis.

The CSRF report says that an ERS deploys roadside infrastructure that allows the most efficient direct use of zero-carbon electricity and hence the lowest societal cost. CSRF says the 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.

Catenary cables, powered by the national electricity grid, would link to lorries driving in the inside lanes on 4,300 miles (7,000km) of UK roads through an extendable rig known as a pantograph – similar to those on the top of electric trains. The electricity would power the lorry’s electric motor, as well as recharging an onboard electric battery that would power them to their destinations beyond the electrified roads.

A lorry fitted for electric roads would only require a battery of similar size to an existing Tesla car to be able to cover the vast majority of the UK, according to David Cebon, a professor of mechanical engineering at Cambridge University who co-authored the study.

CSRF says that truck manufacturers including Scania have indicated they can deliver the modified vehicles and have delivered numerous prototypes for demonstration trials around Europe. The engineering company Siemens has already carried out extensive tests of e-highway electric road systems in Germany, Sweden and the US.

The White Paper sets out the case for a nationwide rollout of ERS through the 2030s. It says 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% of road freight movements.

The remaining 35% of freight movements are mainly urban deliveries that the report says are expected to move to battery electric lorries over the next 10 years. The investment compares well with the size of other planned infrastructure projects. The authors say that work could get underway immediately with an £80 million pilot project in the North East of England. 

The Guardian reports that multiple lorry makers are developing lorries running on hydrogen fuel cells, but the authors of the study argue that “green” hydrogen trucks would use three times more energy than an electric road system. This is because energy is lost at every conversion: using solar or wind energy to make hydrogen and then a fuel cell to generate electricity again.

The authors say that an electric road system would also have a major advantage over alternatives in that it would be possible to tax the electricity used by lorries, enabling the government to easily replace revenues lost from taxing diesel fuel.

The road freight sector contributed around 5% of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2018 as well as pollutants from diesel engines that harm human health. 

Meanwhile, a separate report from the Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment (T&E) says that the EU could cut truck carbon pollution by more than a fifth (22%) in a decade by requiring its main cities to have electric truck charging infrastructure.

T&E’s analysis of truck flows data has identified 173 cities and urban areas where it says chargers are needed in 2030 to put Europe’s road freight on a path to zero emissions.

T&E's report says that 40,000 chargers at distribution centres and public places would require a €28 billion investment over 10 years, or €2.8 billion a year on average. (Compared with €100 billion that is currently spent on road infrastructure every year in the EU.)

Lucien Mathieu, transport and e-mobility analyst at T&E, said: “Electric trucks are clean, cheaper to run and available today.

“But the lack of a European charging strategy and the underwhelming supply from European truckmakers is holding back the market."

T&E says that next year’s review of the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive (AFID) should only focus on electricity and green hydrogen infrastructure to be coherent with the EU Green Deal’s climate ambitions.

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