White Paper: Decarbonising the UK’s Long-Haul Road Freight at Minimum Economic Cost

Paper Authors:  D.T. Ainalis, C. Thorne, and D. Cebon

A copy of the White Paper is available here: SRF-WP-UKEMS-v2

 Key take-aways (TLDR)

1.  Building a network of overhead catenary cables along 7,500 km of the UK’s major road network would electrify approximately 65% of HGV kms, at an estimated cost of £19.3b. It is technically viable, economically attractive and could be achieved by the late 2030s.

2. When combined with battery electrification of urban delivery vehicles, this ‘electric road’ network would almost completely decarbonise UK road freight.

3. The investment by vehicle owners in the pantograph electric vehicles could be paid back in 18 months, through lower energy costs. This would ensure rapid take-up by the road haulage industry.

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

5. The improved energy efficiency of the freight system would  create sufficient financial headroom for substantial government revenues through an electricity excise tax, road user charge or some other form of tax. Under some reasonable pricing scenarios, the revenues could be sufficient to entirely replace the current fuel tax levied on HGVs.

Executive Summary

In July 2019, the UK Government revised its Climate Change Act (2008) to mandate net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. This is an ambitious, but essential objective requiring sweeping changes across the whole of the UK’s energy system. It means that the UK needs a full-range of robust and cost-effective, zero-GHG energy system technologies, covering electricity generation, heat, industry, transport and agriculture: implemented from the early 2020’s onward.

Land-based freight is an essential service sector, vital to the prosperity of the UK; however, it is also a significant source of GHG and noxious emissions. Within domestic freight, Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) carry 90% of the UK’s goods lifted (DfT, 2018a). A zero-emissions alternative to the traditional diesel-powered HGV is vital if the UK is to achieve its net-zero carbon ambition.

The UK’s economy has been hit by an unprecedented economic downturn due to the COVID-19 crisis. As the Government assesses the damage and considers policies that can stimulate investment and jobs, this White Paper presents an opportunity to align these two goals: electrifying our major roads to quickly and cost-effectively decarbonise HGVs.

An ‘Electric Road System’ (ERS) is the primary candidate to deliver the energy needed by the UK’s long-distance HGV fleet. ERS deploys roadside infrastructure that allows the most efficient direct use of zero-carbon electricity and hence the lowest societal cost. This approach is scalable and quick to deploy, using known and available technologies, existing delivery bodies such as National Grid, Highways England and the UK’s construction industry and infrastructure supply chains: creating significant employment. Truck manufacturers including Scania have indicated they can deliver the modified vehicles and have delivered numerous prototypes for demonstration trials around Europe.

This White Paper sets out the case for a nationwide rollout of ERS through the 2030s. A total investment in the region of £19.3 billion would be required to electrify almost all the UK’s long-haul freight vehicles, corresponding to 65% of road freight movements. The estimated CO2 saving would be 13.4 MtCO2e per annum, along with substantial air quality benefits. The remaining 35% of freight movements are mainly urban deliveries that are expected to move to battery electric lorries over the next 10 years. The investment compares well with the size of other planned infrastructure projects. Work could get underway immediately with an £80 million pilot project in the North East of England.

What is an Electric Road System?

There are several forms of ERS including conductive and inductive systems. The most mature and cost-effective technology is the overhead catenary system, which is the focus of this paper. Figure i shows an overhead catenary installed on a German motorway. There are four such demonstrations underway on public roads across Germany and Sweden that have demonstrated the feasibility of the approach, with a further demonstration being planned in Italy.

The overhead catenary system is a mature and safe technology (commonplace in the railway sector) that consists of a supporting structure built outside the road boundary that holds two catenary cable systems. These wires supply the positive and negative electrical circuit that is picked up through a pantograph collector on the roof of the HGV. The pantograph can be rapidly connected and disconnected automatically as needed. The HGV is free to leave the wires to overtake or complete its journey away from the catenary using a separate on-board battery (approximately the size of an electric car battery), providing zero tailpipe emissions at all times. Any existing or future propulsion technology is compatible with the overhead catenary approach. Indeed, during the transition period it is anticipated that hybrid vehicles will combine catenary power with diesel, bio-gas or hydrogen fuel cells to ensure the necessary operational flexibility.

UKEMS fig 1Photograph of a Scania HGV operating on a catenary lorry ‘eHighway’ demonstrator in Germany, from Siemens.

How could zero-emission electric HGVs become a reality in the UK?

The ‘UK Electric Motorway System’ (UKEMS) project will build the necessary infrastructure across the UK’s road network. It is proposed that this is achieved through a four-phase programme. Starting with an £80 million pilot project, leveraging the lessons learnt in Sweden, Germany and Italy, to look at the policy, taxation, and implementation issues specific to the UK. The proposed 40 lane-km South Yorkshire pilot needs to be completed by 2025, so that the main three-phase rollout of the infrastructure can begin. Each of the construction phases of the rollout would take 2-3 years plus associated time for planning, design, procurement, etc. Example rollout phases with estimated costs are shown in Figure ii. The total cost of the final network is estimated to be £19.3 billion and covers approximately 65% of all the HGV-kms in the UK. By using battery electric power to travel to and from the network and for urban operations, a very high level of decarbonisation of the road freight sector would be achieved as the carbon intensity of the electricity grid reduces.

Roll-out of the roadside infrastructure could be made even more cost-effective by combining it with other road infrastructure projects such as the intelligent transport systems needed to support connected and autonomous vehicles as well as the 5G network: thus, sharing costs and providing the UK with world-class digital transport and communications infrastructure. With upfront planning, part of the backbone electrical infrastructure could also be shared with cars and vans, through charging points located at motorway services. Much of the cost of high-power motorway-based charging infrastructure for cars is spent getting sufficient electrical power to the roadside, often directly from the National Grid (or devolved equivalent). By sharing this cost between cars and HGVs, the investment risk will be lowered and construction-related disruption reduced.

How would the system pay for itself and generate revenue for HM Treasury?

This paper shows that profitable business models are possible for the vehicle operators and infrastructure providers and that energy sales can generate substantial revenue for HM Treasury. This is a result of the inherent energy efficiency and low economic costs of operating electric lorries. The investment in pantograph-electric vehicles by fleet operators could pay back within 18 months (due to lower energy costs), with substantial headroom to raise revenue through increased electricity excise tax for the government. Investment in electrification infrastructure: catenary cables, substations, etc., could pay back in 15 years, using the profit margin on electricity sales to vehicles. The system would be entirely self-sustaining and could be built and operated using private finance.

UKEMS fig 2Illustrated example of the 3-phase rollout (motorways are blue, A-roads are green).


Overhead catenaries and compatible HGV’s are the most energy-efficient and cost-effective solution to fully decarbonise the UK’s road freight network. Their deployment is essential if the UK is to achieve its Carbon budgets through to net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. The technology is proven and the transition from the current diesel-centric approach to catenary-powered electric vehicles can be handled with hybrid vehicles. The infrastructure investment can also be partly shared with other investments such as motorway service station charging of cars, the 5G network and the intelligent transport system infrastructure needed to support connected and autonomous vehicles of the future.

The investments in pantograph electric vehicles would pay-back the vehicle operators in 18 months (through lower energy costs) and the electrification infrastructure could pay-back its investors in 15 years (through electricity sales). This makes the infrastructure investment a unique opportunity for private finance. The improved energy efficiency of the freight system will also create sufficient headroom in the economics for substantial government revenues through an electricity excise tax, road user charge or some other form of tax.

This paper shows that under some reasonable pricing scenarios, the revenues could be sufficient to entirely replace the current fuel tax levied on HGVs. In addition, reduced dependence on energy imports would strengthen the UK economy and national energy security.

A three-phase implementation plan is presented with an estimated total cost of £19.3 billion, completing in the late 2030s. A preliminary phase is proposed, consisting of an £80 million UK-specific pilot project to prove the efficacy of the approach and remove all uncertainties. This paper seeks support for the catenary approach and the launching of the pilot project.

A copy of the White Paper is available here: SRF-WP-UKEMS-v2