Last reviewed 7 August 2018

Electric vehicles (EVs) are regularly in the headlines as they — and the infrastructure to service them — continue to develop. Dave Howell discovers that construction sites, too, are going to see more use of EVs and battery-powered machinery.

With advances in battery technology allowing more flexible vehicles to be developed, suppliers of machinery and vehicles across the construction industry are quickly seeing the benefits of electrification.

The UK Government has also made its ambitions clear when it stated in its Road to Zero report: “Our mission is to put the UK at the forefront of the design and manufacturing of zero-emission vehicles, and for all new cars and vans to be effectively zero emission by 2040.”

The industrial and commercial EV sector has seen a 60% growth, according to research by IDTechEx, Industrial and Commercial Electric Vehicles on Land 2017–2027, with mass transit vehicles taking the vast majority of the investment.

However, the industrial and agricultural sectors are rapidly developing — with sales in excess of US$15 billion in hybrid and pure EVs in construction by 2027. Vehicles such as forklift trucks have long been electric workhorses, but other material handling machines will also embrace all-electric power.

Electrifying the site

As construction machinery has decreased in size, and battery and electric motor technologies have developed, this perfect storm of innovation has led to a rapidly emerging compact vehicle sector of which the construction industry is making ready use.

One of the latest innovations is from JCB. The company’s 19C-1 E-TEC mini excavator has zero emissions, allowing contractors to work within enclosed spaces across emissions-sensitive inner-city environments.

JCB Chief Innovation and Growth Officer Tim Burnhope said: “By replacing the diesel engine with an efficient, 48V electrical driveline, with the latest generation automotive battery cells, JCB has once again moved the mini excavator market forwards.”

Mr Burnhope concluded: “The 19C-1 E-TEC will provide contractors with a zero-emission, low-noise solution, allowing them to work independently, in late-night urban conditions, within buildings and even in rail tunnels with no requirement for costly exhaust extraction equipment. The 19C-1 E-TEC points the way to a new zero-emission future for JCB mini excavators.”

A convenient on-board charger is provided as standard, allowing the machine to be fully recharged in six hours using a conventional 230V plug. An optional 110V charging system is available for sites without 230V electricity and JCB will offer a fast-charging option once the machine has been launched — a heavy-duty off-board unit, allowing a full charge in two and a half hours.

JCB, of course, is not alone in the development of electric industrial machinery. Wacker Neuson also recently showed its mini excavator at INTERMAT. The electric, zero-tailed EZ17e offers similar specifications to JCB’s 19C-1 E-TEC.

Commenting, Martin Lehner, CEO of Wacker Neuson SE, said: “We've channelled our many years of experience and expertise in zero emissions products into our first mini excavator with battery and electric-drive technology. Our development work always focuses on usability and customer value. Which is why we make no compromises when it comes to performance, with power ratings matching those of our diesel-powered model.” This model will be available across Europe in 2019.

Plug in your site

With battery technology such a vital component of the entire EV industry, Croner-i Construction spoke with Stephen Irish, Founder and Managing Director at the Sunderland-based battery technology developer Hyperdrive Innovation.

What is the current state of play regarding EV and machinery use on construction sites?

“It’s currently very limited on construction sites. However, we’re seeing a flurry of interest from the electric vehicle technology sector due to diesel restrictions and increasing public interest in reducing harmful emissions.

“The knock-on effect is massive pressure on manufacturers to clean up their act. Encouragingly, there have been a number of prototypes and concepts from UK and European manufacturers being demonstrated at a variety of trade shows. Watch this space. I think it’s when not if we’ll see EV machinery becoming the norm on construction sites.”

What are the current barriers to the increased use of EVs on construction sites?

“Simply, cost has been the main obstacle to more EV adoption. Historically, electrification has been highly expensive but now I believe we’re at a tipping point. The price of electrification and batteries is coming down, and the technology has matured. The benefits are clear, not just in terms of the environment and emission reduction but also operators can make significant potential savings in fuel and running costs.”

Is there additional value (apart from the environmental aspects) of moving to electric or hybrid vehicles on construction sites?

“There are three key value-added benefits and incentives for developers to adopt electric or hybrid vehicles. Firstly, there are huge cost savings to be made if diesel is no longer the main energy supply for on-site vehicles. Then there’s the human benefits of reduced noise for workers and nearby residents, who often suffer months of disruption. This could be a real plus in terms of assisting planning permission and mitigating complaints from the local community. And for the vehicle operator, it is the comfort factor of less vibration.”

What do you think the future of EVs and machinery on construction sites looks like?

“From a low-level start, more and more machines will become electrified: some pure EV, some hybrid-electric depending on duty cycles. As with passenger cars, trucks and buses, end users and the general public will become less and less tolerant of dirty, inefficient machinery. Of course, it is absolutely imperative that any new technologies meet the duty cycle and rigorous requirements of operating. There are huge opportunities here to make better, more efficient products that can improve margins and help the bottom line.”

There is little doubt that the construction site of the near future will increasingly use EVs as they have many advantages. The massive developments seen in the consumer and commercial vehicle sectors will feed through to the industrial sectors with more autonomous vehicles finding their way onto the world’s construction sites.

A recent collaboration between Volvo Construction Equipment and LEGO Technic that resulted in the LEGO Technic Volvo Concept Wheel Loader ZEUX set speaks volumes about how construction vehicle design will change over the next few years as EV and control technologies continue to mature.

What does the future look like?

The continued development of EVs will benefit construction site managers and the wider industry in the following ways.

  • Improving emissions: the Government’s drive for lower emissions will impact on all construction sites.

  • Versatility: EVs will offer more flexible options across construction sites as zero-emission vehicles especially are used in more enclosed and urban areas.

  • Comfort: the vehicle operator is subjected to reduced vibrations.