For a few years I’ve been featuring a building of the week, looking at innovative low carbon buildings. This year I’m challenging myself to do something similar with transport. As I described recently, emissions from transport aren’t falling fast enough, and the biggest problem is road traffic. Politicians have been reluctant to take on car culture, so there’s a real need for good ideas around sustainable transport and mobility.
Let’s kick off with this idea from Scandinavia. One of the obvious ways to reduce transport emissions is electrification – switching from combustion engines to electric vehicles, replacing diesel trains with electric trains and so on. Provided they can run on renewable energy – either immediately or eventually, then there will be a considerable carbon saving.
Air pollution is also a growing concern, rising rapidly up the agenda in Britain and elsewhere, with diesel vehicles a particular problem. Diesel cars can be phased out, but it’s much harder in heavy goods vehicles. That has led to an interesting experiment in Sweden, where the first electric road was installed last year.
Turning to a 130 year old technology first used with trams, hybrid HGVs have been fitted with pantographs – roof-mounted pick-ups that can draw power from overhead wires.
The truck can connect while on the move, so it just has to drive under the wires and raise the pantograph, much like a train does. It is then running on electric power, with zero carbon emissions – until it comes off the 2km test section, and then the biodiesel engine kicks in again.
Among the benefits of this approach is that it can be fitted to existing roads without too much trouble, and it only needs to cover one lane. The downside is that only HGVs with electric motors can use them, and there aren’t many of those yet. There’s growing interest in them though as more cities try to clamp down on diesel pollution – a hybrid HGV can run on diesel until it reaches the city, and use electric for the final mile downtown. And it really is the final mile – Scania’s hybrid can only do 2km on its batteries, as it takes so much power to move the weight. It’s a technology that would make a lot more sense if the trucks were able to use their electric capacity on the open road as well.
It’s too early to tell whether anything will come of this, as it’s just being tested at the moment. If it goes well, it may be fitted to more roads in Sweden, and Norway is also interested. But there are competing technologies, and other ways to create an electric highway, so we shall have to see how it performs.