Cleaner, quieter and more productive electric machines are a commitment to building a better tomorrow. But now that the future of construction equipment has arrived, there are still a few more hurdles to jump before electromobility becomes mainstream.
The benefits of switching diesel-powered machines for their fossil-free, electric counterparts are numerous. The new ECR25 Electric and L25 Electric compact machines by Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE) promise similar performance levels but with zero exhaust emissions and lower noise levels, making them the perfect partner for inner-city and indoor jobs. But since electrifying construction equipment – and of course cars, trucks and buses – attention has now turned to the infrastructure and manufacturing process surrounding these machines. Dr Fares Beainy, Strategy and Business Development Manager, at Volvo CE, explains why we shouldn’t ignore these challenges and comes up with some solutions to overcome them.
The negative publicity of batteries is a challenge for electric vehicle (EV) adoption and it is spilling into construction and industrial applications. Yes, there are no exhaust emissions, but batteries still produce carbon, in the sourcing of the minerals, the manufacturing process and the eventual dismantling of the batteries. While there is no definitive study to validate claims that battery production is more damaging to the environment than diesel vehicles, a question mark still hangs over their carbon footprint. But it may not always be that way. The source of energy for an electric machine may be a battery today, but in the future electric machines could be powered by cleaner alternatives, such as fuel cells, where low-carbon compressed hydrogen is stored in liquid form in a tank.
If all the vehicles on and off the road are electrified and produce zero exhaust emissions, then the problem is isolated to the source of electricity that is used to power these machines. Clearly it would be best to take advantage of renewable energy sources, such as hydropower, wind and solar, but with varied availability across the globe that is not always possible for now. Governments are taking action to help boost the supply of renewable energy, but we still have a way to go. California, for example, signed a bill that would eliminate fossil fuels from the state’s electric grid entirely by 2045.
Another challenge is how to set up the right charging infrastructure to keep all these new electric machines up and running. The automotive industry is doing slightly better in terms of setting up global standards for charging, but the construction industry is still lacking. Adding to the complexity is the challenge of setting up charging points in remote and changeable construction sites. The best way to address this is to take a few steps back and factor the charging problem during the design process. That is why the Volvo ECR25 Electric and L25 Electric both include onboard chargers that enable overnight charging via a regular household plug socket, in addition to being fast charging enabled. The ability to come up with creative solutions, and then test these ideas together with customers on real construction sites, is a key advantage in the exploration of these new technologies.
Most people agree that we need to take action on climate change, but there is still some anxiety over the range and running time of electric machines which may be slowing down the rate of adoption. Customers may be wary of opting for battery-powered vehicles before they are proved a success. Will the machine last long enough to get the job done? What happens if they do not have access to a charging point before the battery runs out? None of these anxieties are isolated to construction, it’s a sticking point for the automotive industry too. But as soon as the early adopters take that step into electromobility they are quick to realize that an electric machine is in many ways more manageable than a conventional diesel machine.
At the moment the initial capital expenditure is higher on an electric machine than on its diesel counterpart. Electromobility in construction is still in its infancy, so a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) is not guaranteed – yet. But because electric construction equipment requires less repairs and maintenance than diesel, and the batteries are expected to last the lifetime of most machine models, it is thought that electric machines will provide a better TCO offering in the years to come. Until then OEMs have to be smart about the way they attract customers to invest – whether that is through new business models or through the new types of service they add on to the machine. We also need the support of governments and public agencies to provide incentive programs and tax breaks. Already we are starting to see this happen, with places such as Europe and California offering incentives for zero emission off-road machines.