Issue 5/2018

Wiring the roads

Joachim Wille, 17 Oct 18
In 2019, three test routes for trucks powered by overhead lines will begin operation in Germany. Researchers have done the maths on whether the technology is worthwhile – for the climate, and for the bottom line.

The “eHighway” is coming. Over- head wires for electric trucks are being installed along three test routes in Germany, on the A5 motorway near Frankfurt, the A1 motorway near Lübeck, and federal highway 462 in Baden-Württemberg. Their purpose is to find out whether the technology can be effectively used to power electric trucks in normal operating conditions.

A study by the Oeko-Institut has now shown that equipping trucks with electric motors powered by overhead lines can indeed result in significant energy savings and lower emissions. What is more, the system would ultimately be cheaper than conventional diesel engines for transport companies. According to the study, in the year 2025 the emissions caused by catenary electric trucks will be around 25 percent lower than those from diesel vehicles – even if conventional engines become much more efficient in the intervening period. By 2030, the difference will be as great as 32 percent, the report predicts.

This is because the Federal Government plans to increase the share of clean power in Germany’s grid from its current level of 40 percent to 65 percent by the same year, thereby reducing the carbon footprint of electric vehicles. Compared to present-day diesel engines, the catenary electric trucks of 2030 could reduce emissions by as much as half.

The Oeko-Institut was commissioned to examine the climate impact and cost of the new trucks by Germany’s federal environment ministry. The three test routes, which have received EUR 45.3 million in funding from the transport ministry, will go into operation in 2019. A key benefit of electric trucks is their high energy efficiency: they require only half as much energy as conventional trucks to cover the same distance, and less than future trucks using synthetic fuels that can be produced using renewable energy.

Growing transport sector

What is more, they are much quieter, which is likely to be relevant on the federal highway route in particular. The cost of building the overhead lines and connecting them to the grid is deemed “acceptable” by the study. Construction of a 4,000 km network using the right-hand lane of motorways by 2030 could be financed with around 20 percent of the revenue from the HGV toll. This would be enough to electrify around a third of the country’s motorway network. On roads without overhead lines, the trucks could run on battery power, or use an engine fueled by diesel, synthetic fuel, natural gas or biogas.

The study’s second key finding highlights a possible unintended consequence of the new technology, which the researchers believe will bring cost savings compared to diesel trucks even within the typical five-year operating life for long-distance HGVs. Although the initial outlay is higher for electric trucks, this would be more than compensated for by lower energy and maintenance costs. This means that freight costs are set to fall in future – a development that could result in stronger growth in road-based goods transport than previously expected.

The sector’s current growth rates are already incompatible with the Federal Government’s target of reducing carbon emissions from transport by 40 to 42 percent by 2030, as the sector has yet to make any emissions savings at all. To counterbalance this trend, raising the HGV toll and charging it on all roads may be necessary – potentially with lower rates for electric trucks to help the technology become established.


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