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Construction’s Electric Future


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As major contributors to planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, the construction and building industries are not typically held up as shining examples of good environmental stewards. According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, construction is responsible for 40% of global energy consumption, contributing a quarter of all CO2 emissions globally.

As global environmental concerns take center stage, excessive consumption of fossil fuels has fallen out of favor. Government regulators have stepped in to penalize operations that don't meet pollution standards, and tax incentives for companies that lower or eliminate their carbon emissions are another attractive reason major companies are stepping up their eco-consciousness game with the introduction of hybrid or all-electric construction equipment. Big names like Volvo, Caterpillar and Hitachi have all seen electric-powered equipment roll off their production lines in recent years, being used in applications from excavation to earth moving to trucking.

Construction is responsible for 40% of global energy consumption, contributing a quarter of all CO2 emissions globally.

Technologists in the industry are hopeful that once proven as capable as their gas or diesel-powered counterparts, a “reinvention of machinery” will take place over the coming years and decades.

Jenny Elfsberg, Director of Emerging Technologies for Volvo, told MachineDesign she is certain that all of Volvo’s construction machinery will be all-electric someday. The Swedish company is clearly betting big on an electric future, having recently announced plans to discontinue all combustion engines in its automotive division by 2019, moving to all electric and hybrid vehicles.

“I am absolutely convinced all of our machines will be all-electric in the future. Either they will be battery powered or connect to the electric grid. To get there, we need to reinvent machines,” said Elfsberg. “We will see downsized machines, specialized ‘one-purpose’ machines, and entirely new approaches, thanks to the electrification. It will entail digitization and automation, and changing the way we look at the entire design process.” 

Scandinavian countries are currently testing and developing zero emissions and battery-powered heavy machinery in partnerships with top-tier equipment manufacturers. The Pon Caterpillar 323F electric excavator, developed in cooperation between Pon Equipment and Caterpillar, is part of Cat’s “Z line” of zero emissions construction equipment. The 323F can run for up to seven hours on a battery charge, and can be fully recharged in 90 minutes with a 1,000-volt charger, according to CleanTechnica. The 323F has no exhaust pipe, and runs at a fraction of the noise level of an equivalent diesel digger.

Volvo introduced its EX2 prototype last year, a zero-emissions compact excavator it touted as the first fully-electric machine of its kind, 100% lithium-ion battery powered and capable of digging in compact ground, according to the company. Volvo said the EX2 is 10 times more efficient, 10 times quieter, and comes with a lower total cost of ownership than gas- or diesel-powered excavators. Volvo is also experimenting with medium-duty electric trucks, which it plans to deliver to customers next year.

The 323F can run for up to seven hours on a battery charge, and can be fully recharged in 90 minutes with a 1,000-volt charger.

In addition to Volvo, Tesla and Daimler have unveiled electric heavy-duty semi trucks, which can get hundreds of miles of range on a short battery charge. Diesel trucks are not only notorious polluters, the noise from their engine confines most urban truck deliveries to business hours, which leads to traffic problems, particularly during rush hour.

Successfully transitioning the current fleets of gas- or diesel-powered construction equipment will hinge upon many factors, most notably cost and viability. 

Eric Hendrickson, Business Development Manager of Vehicle Electrification at Parker Hannifin also confidently told MachineDesign he envisions an all-electric future for construction, and that the technology would go hand-in-hand with other emerging technologies.

“...It is the convergence of many factors that will make electric off-highway vehicles more viable. [including] the ability of electric power to make vehicles more productive by using more efficient subsystems sized to do the work, recapturing energy and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. These abilities will be turbocharged by several technologies such as autonomy, artificial intelligence, fast charging, advances in batteries...high-efficiency electric motors and generators...Taken together, they make it easy to predict that electrification will be a reality in 10 to 15 years.”

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