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How electrification can accelerate industrial transport’s net zero journey

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Decarbonising heavy industrial vehicles is an important part of the global transition to sustainable transport.

While most vehicle traffic is for passenger transport, we often overlook the environmental impact of industrial vehicles. For example, in the European Union, lorries, buses, and coaches account for only 5 per cent of traffic but 25 per cent of total vehicle carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The heaviest vehicles, while less common, account for nearly 50 per cent of these emissions. So, improving the energy efficiency of industrial vehicles offers a significant opportunity to radically reduce global emissions.

The transportation of people, goods and raw materials accounts for over 25 per cent of the world’s total energy consumption and almost 30 per cent of global CO2 emissions. In addition to CO2 emissions, diesel-powered vehicles also emit other harmful gases and particulates. In the US alone, construction machines contribute an estimated 32 per cent of mobile source nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. These place the health of workers in jeopardy by forming smog and exacerbating health conditions like asthma, especially in confined spaces typical of heavy industry, like underground mines.

These environmental and health concerns, plus the urgent need to meet global net zero targets, make it critically important for operators to transition to sustainable transport. The electrification of public transport vehicles like buses has already proven its effectiveness in reducing emissions and energy consumption.  This mode of transport is cleaner and more efficient.

Now is the time to leverage the technology and implement knowledge to also accelerate the decarbonisation of heavy industrial vehicles, from marine vessels, to buses, excavators, underground mining trucks, and many more.

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The environmental and health concerns of greenhouse gas emissions make it critically important to transition to electrified industrial transport.

How do we make it happen?

A highly effective way to accelerate the electrification process is to establish partnerships with OEMs and system integrators. These are not only limited to new vehicles but also apply to retrofit projects, such as replacing a diesel engine with an electrical powertrain.

For example, Nasta AS in Norway is collaborating with ABB to rebuild Hitachi construction vehicles, like excavators, for electric operation using either battery power or a direct cable connection. The conversion procedure includes retrofitting an existing diesel engine with new powertrain components such as electric motors and drives, together with an energy storage system and charging solution.

A diesel-driven 24-tonne excavator typically uses about 18,000 litres of fuel per year, equating to nearly 48 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. Electric upgrades eliminate these emissions altogether, including sulphur oxides (SOx). They also reduce noise pollution. In addition to the environmental benefits, operators say that the electrified machines are much more responsive.

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Electric upgrades to 24-tonne diesel-driven excavators could eliminate 48 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.

Major industrial players must actively accelerate decarbonisation by improving the productivity and energy efficiency of traction powertrains. To be genuinely credible and effective, such sustainability initiatives must use reliable, proven technology for the entire powertrain system. With the right technology, electric motors can achieve 95 per cent energy efficiency compared to the maximum 45 per cent efficiency of diesel engines running in their optimum load range.

The need for infrastructure

To function, electrically powered vehicles require infrastructure to support them – either to supply power directly or for recharging onboard batteries. To switch to electrification technology, operators need to determine and specify the most suitable type of infrastructure first.

It is possible to power industrial vehicles electricity in several ways. These include rechargeable batteries or overhead catenaries for vehicles that follow set routes, or a combination of the two.

Implementing an ideal solution for each application requires innovative thinking. For example, at the Aitik copper mine in Sweden, ABB designed and installed a 700m catenary line to power heavy-duty mining trucks travelling uphill. The pilot project is expected to save around 830,000 litres of diesel annually, reducing CO₂ emissions by 2,200 tonnes. Simultaneously, the mine reduced greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80 per cent along the routes where it had implemented the technology.

With ferries and some trains where catenary infrastructure is insufficient, it’s also possible to follow a hybrid approach using diesel engines and electric motors. The diesel engine can then operate within its optimum load range to run as efficiently as possible, reducing emissions.

Making the switch

The key components of an electric powertrain are an electric motor and a traction converter. The electric motors for both industrial and transportation vehicles need to be robust, more powerful and have a longer working life than those used in passenger vehicles. They’ll typically be powering continuously moving vehicles weighing 10 tonnes or more for long periods at a time.

A traction converter regulates the voltage and frequency of the electricity supplied to the motor to match the vehicle’s needs. Since this process affects all other components in the powertrain, it’s essential to select a highly efficient converter. Modern converter technology can reduce energy consumption and costs by up to 20 per cent.

Electric motors and traction converters can also be used in regenerative braking systems to recover energy during braking that would otherwise be lost as heat. Regenerative systems are already extensively used in road and rail vehicles and are starting to become more common in industrial electric vehicles.

Regulators worldwide are setting increasingly more stringent emissions targets. Therefore, applying electrification technology to industrial electric vehicles, buses, and vessels is a clear and necessary step on the journey towards the decarbonisation of industry.

Download ABB’s new whitepaper on sustainable transport to learn more about the transformative role electrical powertrains can play in industrial transportation.

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