UK Government exploring feasibility of 'electric highways' for zero-emission trucks

The Department for Transport (DfT) has awarded a share of £20m to a consortium of businesses that will explore how long-range trucks can be electrified using overhead wires on motorways across the country, to assist with the UK's net-zero emissions target.

The proposed plan would use the Siemens Mobility ‘eHighway’ technology, which has been trialled on small road systems in Germany and Sweden

The proposed plan would use the Siemens Mobility ‘eHighway’ technology, which has been trialled on small road systems in Germany and Sweden

The funding has been awarded to an array of projects through Innovate UK, including to a business consortium that will deliver the UK’s first study on the electrification of Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) through the creation of “electric highways”.

The consortium, awarded the funding as part of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan through Innovate UK, is proposing electric roads systems that would see battery-fitted trucks attaching to overhead wires on roads to run using electricity, similar to how rail and trolley-buses function.

The consortium consists of Siemens Mobility, Scania, Costain, The Centre for Sustainable Road Freight (Cambridge University and Heriot-Watt University), ARUP, Milne Research, SPL Powerlines, CI Planning, BOX ENERGI and Possible.

The proposed plan would use the Siemens Mobility ‘eHighway’ technology, which has been trialled on small road systems in Germany and Sweden. A nine-month study will explore the feasibility of this system and will look at electrifying at least 19 miles of the M180 as the pilot, linking Immingham Port with the logistics hubs of Doncaster and its airport.

Innovate UK’s innovation lead for zero-emission vehicles Alistair Barnes said: “We’re delighted that this consortium is bringing its extensive experience to solve challenges around decarbonising HGVs by planning to demonstrate this technology at scale on UK roads. Innovate UK is proud to be supporting this project as part of its partnership with the DfT.”

HGVs currently account for 18% of all road vehicle CO2 emissions, despite only representing 1.2% of the total number of vehicles on the road. They do, however, transport 98% of food, consumer and agricultural products across the country.

The consortium believes that a fully operational electric road system could create tens of thousands of jobs as around 200,000 new electric trucks would need to be built over the next 15 years. The consortium claims that an initial investment into these new vehicles could be recouped within 18 months, due to lower energy costs, and the electrification infrastructure would pay back investors in 15 years.

Any investment into electric highways would likely complement existing efforts to promote EVs for passenger vehicles, including through improved access to charging.

Earlier this month, Gridserve, the company behind the UK's first "electric forecourt", announced plans to launch a UK-wide network of rapid EV charging points. Overall, Gridserve is planning to invest £100m into the Electric Highway network through the new plans.

Gridserve revealed that it has already upgraded some 80 charging points across 50 locations since the acquisition. It is on track to upgrade chargers at a further 70+ locations by September, bringing the total to 150. Under Ecotricity, the chargers had been installed in proximity to motorways and in Ikea car parks.

In addition to retrofitting these existing locations, the firm, which has received investment from Hitachi Capital and The Rise Fund, is planning at least 50 ‘Electric Hubs’ with ultra-rapid chargers. At least 10 of the 50 Hubs should be completed by the end of 2021.

Roads rage

The announcement from the DfT arrives as green campaigners continue to contest the Government’s decision to spend £27.4bn on a second Road Investment Strategy (RIS2).

RIS2 was first announced at the 2020 Budget and plans were then formalised with Highways England in August 2020. While the Government has repeatedly claimed that it has properly accounted for the environmental impact of the projects set to be completed using the funding, green groups have continued to voice anger and disappointment.

The Transport Action Network (TAN) took the UK Government to the High Court over RIS2. Proceedings began in June and the crux of the argument was that RIS2 could jeopardise the UK’s ability to meet its Paris Agreement commitments or legally binding net-zero by 2050 target, given that the Department for Transport (DfT) did not “properly” measure or disclose the emissions impact of the Strategy.

This week, a judge has ruled that TAN does not have sufficient evidence that the DfT’s decision on the Strategy was “irrational, absent bad faith or manifest absurdity”. As such, the challenge on climate grounds is not robust enough.

Matt Mace



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