John Sisk & Son, the Irish construction giant, has made its first purchase of heavy plant powered by batteries. Sisk reckons that its new telehandler, a JCB 525-60E, is the first of its kind in operation in Ireland. The telehandler – a bit like a more powerful version of a forklift – is being used at the Coopers Cross site in Dublin’s docklands.
It’s not the big yellow JCB digger that we all know well. This one features loading forks mounted to a long hydraulic arm that can reach forward or upward by six metres, and carry as much as 2.5 tonnes at full load. It’s a compact device, with the driver’s cab set off to one side and down low, and is made more manoeuvrable thanks to four-wheel steering.
Normally, next to the driver’s cab, there would be a diesel engine, but this model is fully electric, and carries a 24kWh battery. That’s small – an electric Opel Corsa-e hatchback has more than twice the battery capacity – but Sisk reckons it is perfect for what it needs to do. The rule of thumb is that you can get one working shift out of each vehicle.
Telehandlers tend to run for about 500 hours a year, and on site they generally carry out a specific task and then aren’t used again until needed, meaning that they can be plugged in and topped up regularly and maintain a constant state of charge.
The benefits go beyond the obvious reduction in carbon emissions. With no diesel emissions, it can be used in underground areas without anyone having to inhale nasty fumes, which is a big tick in the health-and-safety box. It is also quiet – not silent but certainly quieter than a diesel model, which makes the driver’s life a touch easier.
Clearly, one telehandler on one site isn’t going to make a massive dent by itself in Ireland’s total CO2 emissions, nor on the emissions from construction in general, which are significant.
“Producing and transporting construction materials and constructing buildings and infrastructure account for 11 per cent of our national emissions,” according to the Irish Green Building Council.
That’s more than private cars account for.
According to Ian O’Connor, Sisk’s energy manager, this particular vehicle is just the first step on the road towards more sustainable construction.
“We know that the application of these electric telehandlers isn’t for every site,” O’Connor tells The Irish Times. “They’re best deployed in city-centre environments, and on residential sites, where charging is available from the local grid, and they’re not going to be covering long distances such as on a large civil engineering project. There have been examples of carbon-neutral construction projects in city-centre environments, but we’re quite a distance away, and this is still a diesel-heavy industry.
“But getting this first electric telehandler on to our site is a significant milestone on our route to achieving our carbon emissions ambitions. Now that we have it here, we hope to demonstrate that this technology is suitable for construction projects, and that we’ll start to see more and more of them on sites.”
So, is this the tipping point? Can we start to convert all heavy plant machinery to battery power now? Not quite. In fact, not even close. For a start, the arrival of this telehandler has been much delayed, with JCB quoting the same constrictions in the supply of microchips and other components that have been slowing vehicle production across the globe.
Also, the impact of the war in Ukraine on global production could well turn out to be far worse than that of the chip shortage; so right now lead times are lengthy.
The other problem is that while battery power works fine for a vehicle such as this telehandler, it doesn’t work so well when you start to get into larger vehicles.
Dennis Murray is the managing director of ECI JCB in Rathcoole, west Dublin, which supplied Sisk with this new electric JCB. He says we need to make another technological leap to de-carbonise heavy construction units.
“The future of electric in this size of machine will help us,” Murray says. “Electric won’t work for the larger machines that are doing over 1,000-hours a year. Those will most likely have to be powered by hydrogen, which is a project that JCB is currently working on, and is testing hydrogen power for bigger machines. That’s where it’s going, I think.”
According to Murray, hydrogen needs to be produced from green sources, and it needs to be produced at the right cost. “If you think about Ireland in particular, and the west coast, with wind power it would be very easy to create a lot of green hydrogen.”
JCB recently revealed a much modified experimental version of its Dieselmax combustion engine, which had been converted to run on hydrogen. In theory, such an engine can be free of carbon emissions (burning hydrogen only produces water vapour for the most part) and JCB claims that its exhaust after-treatment systems mean that there are no dangerous NOx (nitrogen oxide) gases or soot particles.
JCB’s chairman, Anthony Bamford, has said: “We’re not arguing for diesel any more; that horse has bolted. Zero carbon emissions must be the target, but we don’t believe that batteries and fuel cells are the only solutions.”
So while the new telehandler is a move in the right direction, there’s still a long road to travel before the construction industry reaches a carbon-neutral destination.