The construction site with 100% electric vehicles: Where Norway leads, will the UK follow?

Posted by Derek Mason

25th October 2021

Picture credit: CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Decarbonising the construction industry is a lofty goal, but one that can seem far-fetched when we look at where we are now. Globally, the construction industry as a whole is responsible for 38% of total energy-related C02 emissions. It’s a long way from net zero!

For that reason, it’s fascinating to see Norway leading the way with the first construction site with all electric vehicles. And with a grid that is 98% renewable energy, a pilot project – which was aiming to hit zero emissions – did come very close.

The main challenge that prevented the project from hitting zero emissions was a propane burner that could not be swapped for an emission-free alternative. But the Olav Vs gate project saved 99% emissions compared with using diesel vehicles.

They saved 35,000 litres of diesel and the equivalent of 92,500g of C02, which roughly equates to taking 20 cars off the road for a year, simply by swapping standard vehicles for electric.

Could we do something similar here? One of the difficulties is that we’re in a heavily cost-driven industry. So the upfront costs of purchasing electric excavators, diggers and loaders – or retrofitting existing plant – are likely to hinder this happening in the UK. On the plus side, electricity costs are generally cheaper than diesel, leading to savings overall. Also, electric vehicles can work later into the night or start earlier in the morning as they are quieter, thus speeding up a project.

Another challenge in the UK is the fact that only around 40% of our power comes from renewables (the percentage varies depending on weather conditions), meaning that switching to electric vehicles doesn’t guarantee that fewer fossil fuels will be burnt.

However, there are benefits beyond a reduction in carbon emissions. The site in Oslo reported a considerable decrease in fumes and ambient noise. Shopkeepers kept their doors open, even when construction work was going on very close by. And workers on site shared that communication was easier and, therefore, the working conditions felt safer.

After this initial test project, Oslo has a goal of zero emissions for all public construction sites by 2025 and zero emissions for both public and private by 2030.

All of this is particularly topical with COP26 (Conference of the Parties 26), the United Nations climate change conference, happening next month in Glasgow.

Our own targets, set out by the UK government, state that the construction sector should adopt the national carbon emission reduction targets. These are to reduce emissions by 68% by 2030 and 78% by 2035, compared with 1990 levels.

And, of course, net-zero by 2050 is the overall target. With these ambitious goals, moving to electric construction vehicles and greener electricity will undoubtedly need to be part of the solution. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds and to watch which construction companies start making the leap to electric vehicles.

Balfour Beatty has launched an initiative to showcase working towards a “zero-carbon construction site” on a project at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. As well as improving energy efficiency in the existing glasshouses, the scheme includes the construction of a 20-metre-high glasshouse.

The firm will monitor emissions throughout the delivery of the scheme but does not expect to hit zero-carbon. It’s interesting to note that they have already mentioned they may be hindered in their goals by a lack of electric plant availability. And they haven’t committed to using the lowest carbon option in situations where the costs are too significant.

It’s a start, but I fear that those two challenges of cost and plant availability will be an issue for any firm that attempts to get close to zero-carbon emissions. Let’s hope that our ambitions for reducing emissions match our Scandinavian colleagues’ goals sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.

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