Will contractors ever ditch diesel?

Kirsty Chappell is plant manager at O’Brien Contractors

Across all industries, organisations and individuals are making changes to support a positive future for the planet. In particular, the construction industry has made significant improvements in recent years, with the use of repurposed materials, waste reduction and carbon offsetting (both in construction and operation) all helping to reduce the sector’s impact on the environment.

Although the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel combustion engine vehicles has been pushed to 2035, large-scale change must be made if the UK is to meet its target, and the construction industry, with its heavy plant and machinery and transportation needs, is no exception.

“Given the power and energy demands of heavy plant and machinery, the transition to electric or hydrogen power poses a unique set of challenges”

While all-electric vehicles have made their way to the forefront of consumer consciousness, the same is yet to be said for the construction industry. Given the power and energy demands of heavy plant and machinery, the transition to electric or hydrogen power poses a unique set of challenges.

One of the first challenges to overcome is the strength of battery- or hydrogen-powered technology. Plant machinery requires a considerably higher amount of power than smaller vehicles, meaning that significant advancement in battery capacity and hydrogen-powered machinery is needed, not just to run the machinery, but to make sure it holds its charge and can be charged and fuelled efficiently.

The costs of new technology

To make these advancements feasible, serious consideration must be given to the cost implications – contractors should not be priced out of electric- or hydrogen-powered equipment. Although it is impossible to avoid the upfront costs, especially while the technology is new to the market, the affordability of such advancements must be considered if widespread change is to happen.

There are currently several sustainable solutions already being used within the construction industry, such as hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) to fuel some heavy goods vehicles, and a number of contractors investing in hybrid excavators. However, due to the current technological limitations, there is a lot of work to be done before contractors can ever fully ‘ditch the diesel’.

As with all sectors, parties must be aware of the goalposts that are in place, and that stricter regulations could be on the horizon, incentivising the shift towards greener alternatives. Although smaller interim changes go a long way in supporting the day-to-day steps towards net-zero emissions by 2050, a long-term approach must be taken by manufacturers, developers and contractors to make sure research and development (R&D) into alternative solutions is effective.

Working together

While these changes are long-awaited, it is likely to take several years, or even decades, for a full transition into sustainably powered plant and equipment. If this process is to be fast-tracked into fruition, and clean technologies are to become the norm, collaboration between contractors, developers, manufacturers and government bodies is crucial.

This will require all parties to share R&D progress, creating a collective knowledge of the best practices and experiences. This collaborative approach will also speed up the development of more powerful and efficient sustainable construction machinery.

The construction sector’s journey towards a diesel-free future is certainly challenging, but not impossible. As technology advances and collaborative efforts gain momentum, electric- and hydrogen-powered machinery will become a reality, setting an example for other industries to follow.

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