Are governments going to start mandating for non-diesel-powered construction equipment?

Charging time and availability of charging options is a common concern among end users of electric compact equipment. (Photo: Volvo Construction Equipment)

As the UK considers a new strategy for decarbonising construction equipment, is it a sign that governments could start mandating for machines powered by something other than diesel?

Change could be afoot when it comes to the UK government’s approach to construction equipment, and specifically how environmentally friendly that machinery is.

Diesel machines still predominate in the UK, as they do in every other major construction industry in the world. Sales of electric machines, while growing, still make up a tiny proportion of the overall total.

And other low-carbon technologies like hydrogen-combustion engines, championed by the likes of JCB, are only just starting to advance beyond the prototype stage.

But it appears that the UK government wants to hasten the pace of change.

Last year, it announced that it would publish a cross-government strategy to decarbonise non-road mobile machinery (NRMM), estimating that collectively they emit 11.4 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e) per year. That is equivalent to 2.7% of all the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

A new ‘call for evidence’, published at the very end of 2023, now gives manufacturers and users of NRMM until March to help inform that strategy.

The areas the call for evidence, published jointly by the Department for Energy Security & Net Zero (DESNZ), the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport (DfT), seek information on include:

  • How NRMM is used across different sectors of the economy.
  • What efficiency measures, process changes, and fuel switching technologies might be required to decarbonise NRMM.
  • What issues may affect the development and deployment.
  • Whether existing policies are sufficient to decarbonise NRMM in line with net zero; and
  • Whether the policy principles of the Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy should also apply in relation to determining whether there is a case for further government intervention to support NRMM decarbonisation.
‘Vitally important’

Dale Camsell, senior technical consultant at the Construction Equipment Association (CEA), told Construction Briefing that the call for evidence was “critically important”.

The CEA is still developing its response to the call for evidence and is seeking views from its members on the questions posed, which meant it was not able to provide specifics about how it will respond.

Cat’s 20-tonne 320 electric excavator, on show at Bauma 2022

But Camsell said, “We will most certainly be providing a response because we see this as being hugely important.” 

Camsell said that CEA members already understand the need to decarbonise for the future of the planet but the challenge, rather than the technology, is going to be providing viable, commercially available fuel for machines, whether electricity for recharging electric machines or hydrogen for use generators or directly in the machines themselves.

He stressed that manufacturers envisage that internal combustion engines will continue to play a role in construction equipment for the foreseeable future, and will take a significant portion of the market for decades to come. He went on to say that it’s important that policymakers recognise that a mix of technologies, along with the necessary fuel supply infrastructure, will be needed to support the varied demands of construction equipment.

“These machines are a lot of investment for the purchasers. Any delays to a project caused by machines not having available fuel could come with heavy penalties so, unless there is an infrastructure of readily available commercially viable fuels, there is a risk in users switching to decarbonised machines. What we need is a holistic approach to decarbonisation. It can’t just be driven by manufacturers – we will manufacture what people want to buy,” he added.

He called on the government to establish its long-term decarbonisation policies, to provide certainty to manufacturers, buyers and users of equipment.

He suggested that in the short term, specifying only decarbonised solutions on public projects to incentivise change could be the direction to head in.

‘Technologies are there but we just aren’t using them’

Mats Bredborg, Volvo Construction Equipment’s head of customer cluster utility, is also keen to drive forward the decarbonisation process in the industry and welcomed the call for evidence.

He pointed to the fact that efforts are already underway to encourage on-road low-emission and low-carbon vehicles in cities like London, with its Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), mainly as a way to improve air quality. But the rules don’t apply to NRMM.

“The technologies are there and they are commercially available but we are just not using them,” he says.

“The call for evidence is wider, but we already have a path that we are going down in the major cities [for on-road machines]…It makes sense that you take the next step and look at the construction industry.

“The utility sector is already under a lot of pressure to decarbonise. If you look at a city like London, there’s 25,000-30,000 compact excavators there alone. Half of those are likely to be going into utility work. Manufacturers like Volvo have electrical equipment that can do this job, certainly at the smaller end, but people have to make that leap and the equipment is more expensive.

JCB's hydrogen refueller refuels a hydrogen-powered backhoe loader JCB’s hydrogen refueller refuels a hydrogen-powered backhoe loader (Image courtesy of JCB)

“So it makes sense to have more consistency between on-road and off-road. This is a major change in the industry that will bring in new players, new money, and new investment. Even if our industry is conservative and traditional, I think it would be good for it to be shaken up a little bit and refreshed because we need to do things differently and we need to use different stakeholders to make this work.”

Meanwhile, in a statement released by JCB following the publication of the call for evidence, the UK-based OEM’s chairman Lord Bamford called on the industry to embrace the opportunity.

He said, “The call for evidence is a crucial milestone that should be taken very seriously by everyone who is affected, from trade associations to owners and users of non-road mobile machinery.

“This is a historic landmark for many industries, particularly the construction and agricultural sectors which JCB has supplied for nearly 80 years. It is vital everyone affected engages in this process to help determine which technologies are appropriate to achieve a net zero future. In JCB’s case, we will highlighting the important role that hydrogen will play alongside electric technology for smaller products.”

Call for consistency across borders
Bobcat E32e electric excavator Bobcat’s E32e battery-electric excavator. (Photo: Bobcat)

The UK’s focus on decarbonising construction equipment gives an indication of the approach governments in other nations across the world could start to take.

But as more of them begin to consider regulations governing the sector, Camsell cautioned that there needs to be some consistency in their approach.

“One thing that is really important is that the countries work in some degree of unison,” he said.

“We’re in a global market and the expense of investing in decarbonised machines is considerable. We need a holistic, global solution here, rather than having to have specific machine types for different markets. This should not be dealt with by individual countries in isolation,” he added.

Bredborg also agreed that the rules across borders would need to be similar.

“There are 320 low emissions zones within Europe and that will grow to over 500 within three years,” he said. “So exactly the same kind of thing that the UK government is looking at now is being looked at by other cities and other governments, or will be looked at.

“It should be a bit like Formula One, where everything is possible within the rules. We need a box of rules that is very similar. This is my personal opinion, but I don’t think governments should interfere with the technology we deploy or the way we go about it. Whether it is hydrogen, electrification, or sustainable fuels, market forces will find the right and the most competitive solution within the framework that governments set up.”

The deadline for manufacturers and users in the UK to make submissions to the UK government’s call for evidence on the decarbonisation of NRMM is 26 March.

To take part, click here: https://www.gov.uk/government/calls-for-evidence/non-road-mobile-machinery-decarbonisation-options

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