UK Explores Building E-Highway to Power Long-Haul Trucks

Proponents say overhead electric wires represent the most efficient way to decarbonize long-distance road transportation.

First ehighway in Germany
First ehighway in Germany.


The British government is studying the possibility of installing a nationwide network of overhead wires to power long-distance electric trucks as part of efforts to decarbonize the transportation sector by 2050. 

This so-called “e-highway” would be built along the country’s main highways and would consist of overhead electric wires like those that typically power streetcars and trains. However, the main difference will be that trucks will be fitted with batteries so they will be able to detach themselves from the wires in order to reach their final destinations with zero emissions.

To determine whether such a scheme would be feasible, the United Kingdom's Department of Transport has commissioned a study from a group of private firms led by Costain, a construction and engineering company. The consortium also includes German railway company Siemens Mobility and Swedish truck maker Scania as well as the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, an academic research group, among others. 

Siemens Mobility, Scania, and SPL, a powerline company, have trialed smaller e-highways in Germany and Sweden (and a similar trial also took place in the U.S. in 2017), but the U.K. pilot project, which aims to electrify a 20-mile-long stretch, is much larger. The track will link a port, a logistics hub, and an airport in northern England.

“This study is another important step towards understanding how industry could work together to tackle one of the largest carbon emission producers in the country and create a cleaner, greener, and more efficient road freight network across the U.K.,” said Sue Kershaw, managing director of Transportation for Costain.

The consortium hopes that the 9-month study, which starts this summer, will prompt the British government to fund a network of e-highways throughout the country that would be built over the next decade. According to a study by the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, the system, which would run over the lanes of existing highways, could cost around $26.8 billion (£19.3 billion).

Such a scheme would lead to the manufacturing of 200,000 new electric trucks over a 15 year period, which together with the construction of the electrification system would create tens of thousands of jobs.

Infographic: Electrified road freight traffic – the eHighway by Siemens

Emissions from heavy-duty trucks

Emissions from road transportation have increased rapidly in recent years and are expected to continue surging, even in low-emissions scenarios. The sector is responsible for about 15% of global carbon emissions, with roughly half of those emissions coming from passenger vehicles and a third from trucks transporting goods and products. 

Heavy-duty trucks are big polluters because they are powered by large engines and typically travel hundreds of miles a day. The U.K. estimates that they account for around 18% of the country’s transportation emissions, even though they represent just 1.2% of the vehicles on British roads. But trucks distribute 98% of all the food, consumer, and agricultural products consumed in the U.K., so they are an essential part of the British economy. 

The U.K. is not alone. Most countries worldwide depend heavily on trucks to transport everything, from construction materials to food, as well as agricultural products and fuel. 

To slash carbon emissions and keep climate change at bay, the world urgently needs to electrify truck transportation. However, according to the International Energy Agency, by the end of 2020, there were only 31,000 heavy-duty electric trucks registered worldwide, which compares to around 10 million electric passenger vehicles.

Truck makers such as Daimler, MAN, Renault, Scania, and Volvo have unveiled plans to move toward an all-electric future but the widespread adoption of these trucks will likely depend on the construction of a network of heavy-duty chargers, which does not yet exist in Europe, or the U.S.

Proponents argue installing e-highways will be more cost-effective than building high-capacity charging stations.

“Our previous research says that overhead catenary power will provide the lowest cost, lowest carbon, and most rapidly deployable solution to decarbonize long-haul road freight in the U.K.,” said David Cebon, director of the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight. “Moreover, the technologies this consortium is working on could be deployed in most countries once demonstrated, supporting the global move towards greener logistics.”

View Article Sources
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  2. "Green Light for Path to UK’s First ‘Electric Motorway’." Costain, 2021.

  3. "Siemens Demonstrates First eHighway System in the U.S." Siemens, 2017.

  4. Cebon, David, et al. "White Paper: Decarbonising the UK’s Long-Haul Road Freight at Minimum Economic Cost." The Center for Sustainable Road Freight, 2020.

  5. Ritchie, Hannah. "Cars, Planes, Trains: Where do CO2 Emissions from Transport Come From?" Our World in Data, 2020.

  6. "Overview." International Energy Agency, 2021.