Are e-highways the future of road freight?


A study by some of the UK's top universities has argued most of the carbon dioxide emissions from road freight could be eliminated by the introduction of e-highways, which use overhead charging cables for electric lorries.

A £19.3bn investment is needed for a nationwide roll-out of the Electric Road System (ERS) which could be completed by the late 2030s, the white paper argues, with the full costs paid back within 15 years.

There are several forms of ERS, including conductive and inductive systems, but the paper argues the most 'mature and cost-effective technology' is the overhead catenary system. 

This is similar to the system on electric trains and successful demonstrations have been trialled on public roads across Germany and Sweden, with a further demonstration being planned in Italy.

The catenary cables would be powered by the national grid and linked to lorries driving in the inside lanes on 4,300 miles (7,000km) of UK roads.

A supporting structure built outside the road boundary would hold the cables, which supply an electric circuit picked up through a pantograph collector on the roof of the HGV. This can be rapidly connected and disconnected automatically as needed.

The paper argues that 'under some reasonable pricing scenarios, the revenues could be sufficient to entirely replace the current fuel tax levied on HGVs'.

'A total investment in the region of £19.3bn would be required to electrify almost all the UK’s long-haul freight vehicles, corresponding to 65% of road freight movements,' the report states.

The estimated CO2 saving would be 13.4 MtCO2e per annum, along with substantial air quality benefits. The remaining 35% of freight movements are largely urban deliveries that are expected to move to battery-electric lorries over the next 10 years.

It adds: 'The investment in pantograph-electric vehicles by fleet operators could payback within 18 months (due to lower energy costs), with substantial headroom to raise revenue through increased electricity excise tax for the government.

'Investment in electrification infrastructure: catenary cables, substations, etc., could payback in 15 years, using the profit margin on electricity sales to vehicles. The system would be entirely self-sustaining and could be built and operated using private finance.'

The paper was written by the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight (SRF), which was established to help minimise carbon emissions from the road freight sector and brings together: the Cambridge University Engineering Department, the Logistics Research Centre of Heriot Watt University and the Freight and Logistics Research Group at the University of Westminster.

It outlines a three-phase implementation plan with each construction phase taking 2-3 years plus associated time for planning, design and procurement, and a preliminary phase consisting of an £80m UK-specific pilot project covering 40km lane in South Yorkshire.

Within domestic freight, heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) carry 90% of the UK’s goods lifted (DfT, 2018a) and road freight accounts for around 5% of the UK carbon dioxide emissions.

'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,' the report argues.

Engineering giant Siemens and truck manufacturers including Scania have indicated they can deliver the modified vehicles and have delivered numerous prototypes for demonstration trials around Europe.

The ‘UK Electric Motorway System’ (UKEMS) project could build the necessary infrastructure across the UK’s road network, the report states.

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