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Think tank proposes railway-style catenary lines to power electric trucks

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UK motorways could soon look a little more like high speed railway lines, as the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight has proposed a network of overhead catenary lines to power electric lorries. 

The idea is simple enough. Simply install catenary cables above major roads in the UK and have lorries installed with pantographs take advantage of them. That way, the lorries are constantly powered, and range isn’t really a factor when it comes to switching from diesel to electric. 

It’s certainly a bold plan. The Centre for Sustainable Road Freight has estimated that it would cost £19.3 billion to construct, but it noted that electrifying the UK road network would cover 65% of the distance travelled by HGVs. That would massively benefit the UK’s quest for net zero emissions. 

What benefit is there to the electrical industry? 

A project of this scale would have massive benefits for the electrical industry, as skilled workers would be required to install the system. The proposal calls for 7,500km worth of road to be covered in catenary cable by the late 2030s. 

In addition to installing the catenary cable, the electrical industry will also benefit from the general electrification of haulage in the UK. The Centre for Sustainable Road Freight has called for urban delivery vehicles to be electrified. With an estimated 3.8 million vans in the UK, if all of those were to switch to electric, they would all require a network of chargers to ensure they’re always ready to go. 

Of course, traditional trucks would also benefit from this EV charging infrastructure, as outside of the network of catenary lines, they’ll have to charge like traditional EVs.

Isn’t the idea of a catenary cable network on UK roads cost prohibitive? 

The installation of thousands of miles worth of catenary cables is not cheap. As previously mentioned, The Centre for Sustainable Road Freight estimates that it will cost £19.3 billion to construct. However, the firm also believes that the investment will pay for itself by simply selling electricity to haulage firms who access the system. 

According to the think tank, the electrification infrastructure could pay-back its investors in just 15 years, through the profit margin on electricity sales. This would make the infrastructure investment a unique opportunity for private finance.

Why an electrified road system in the UK just won’t work

Of course, the problem with this is that there’s no guarantee that haulage firms will sign up to use the system. Electric trucks are already more expensive than traditional trucks, and while there are huge savings associated with eliminating the need for diesel, those savings could be wiped out if the electricity cost of accessing the system is deemed too high.

In fact, many haulage firms may be happy with the range offered by battery electric vehicles that aren’t fitted with a pantograph, such as the Tesla Semi. The Tesla truck promises 500 miles of range when fully loaded, which is more than enough range to get from Penzance to Newcastle upon Tyne. 

While that doesn’t sound like a lot, most trucks do far less than that in any given day. If a vehicle does an average of 50 mph, nine hours of driving a day, 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year, then that gives an annual mileage of just 108,000 miles. The maximum mileage that could be achieved in just one day would be 450 miles, rendering the catenary system useless. 

Of course, charging time is a major factor when it comes to the range of electric vehicles, and once again this is a non-issue. Many trucks in the UK will remain in their yards overnight, allowing them plenty of time to charge. Of course, it would mean installing rapid chargers, as the estimated 1,000kWh batteries of trucks like the Tesla Semi would take a whopping 142 hours to charge on a standard 7kWh charger. Tesla, meanwhile, is planning to launch a range of chargers that will give the vehicle 400 miles of range in just 30 minutes. 

So why do catenary networks constantly get proposed?

While the system is unlikely to gain mass popularity in the UK, there are other countries where it could feasibly work. Take the USA for example. Truckers on the other side of the pond often travel much longer distances and are often paired with another driver. That means when one driver sleeps, the other drives. That means there isn’t as much downtime on a truck in the US as there is in the UK, allowing for less charging time. 

That reality isn’t stopping some areas of the UK pressing ahead with the idea of installing a catenary network, however. An £80 million pilot project, leveraging the lessons learnt from projects in Sweden, Germany and Italy, is planned for South Yorkshire. This would cover a 40km stretch of motorway and its estimated completion date is 2025.

Do you think an electrified highway could work in the UK? Leave a comment and let us know.

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