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Inside Innovation: Construction machinery evolving from electric today to hydrogen tomorrow

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: Construction machinery evolving from electric today to hydrogen tomorrow

Leading machinery manufacturers John Deere and Volvo put their electric-powered devices in the field this past summer and the verdict is clear: all gain and little pain. Testing over the past 12 months has confirmed that the era of electrified worksites is close at hand.

Development of electrified machinery has been motivated by regulatory efforts to cut the CO2 emissions from larger highway vehicles. In Europe, emissions must be reduced 30 per cent from 2019 levels by 2030. The United States has a target of 46 per cent lower emissions by 2027 from 2010 levels.

While heavy construction equipment has not been under the same scrutiny, the pressure to improve is there. For example, municipal mandates for zero-carbon construction initiatives are more common, increasing the interest in zero-emission excavators, graders and so on.

John Deere announced its 310X electric backhoe, a shallow-trenching workhorse, early in the New Year. Over the summer, international electricity and gas company National Grid tested the 310X at several of its projects in the U.S.

Details released at Utility Expo in September confirmed key performance specs are very comparable to Deere’s diesel-powered 310L.

Lower operating noise is a secondary benefit of moving away from gas and diesel engines. The 310X operates at only 75dB versus 89dB, a noticeable difference. Lower decibels in the cab can potentially reduce operator fatigue during use as well as overall tiredness at the end of the day. Reduced engine noise also improves verbal communication among workers onsite and can result in fewer complaints from occupants of adjoining properties.

Meanwhile, Volvo has released two compact electric machines, the ECR25 excavator and the L25 loader.

Similar to the real-world testing conducted by John Deere, Volvo ran the ECR25 and L25 alongside diesel versions in numerous settings that included demolition, excavation, material moving, trenching, grading and light waste management.

Commenting on the side-by-side demonstrations, representatives for the various companies involved in Volvo’s comparison tests were impressed by the amount of fuel exhausts eliminated. Volvo claims that during 400 test hours of test operation, the ECR25 had eliminated the consumption of 560 gallons of diesel and the production of an estimated six metric tons of CO2 emissions.

While there are long-term savings due to the removal of fuel costs, there remains the challenge of on-site recharging of such large electrical devices.

Volvo says its excavator can be fast-charged via the grid to 80 per cent capacity within an hour and its loader in two hours. Depending on the application, these times offer the potential of a full eight-hour workday.

However, Bernd Heid, Christopher Martens, and Anna Orthofer of McKinsey Global write that battery power may not be the long-term answer for heavy construction equipment. They look to hydrogen as the fuel of the future.

“A switch from diesel to hydrogen could be a straightforward way to decarbonize (gas and diesel) engines, with a relatively minor requirement for further technical innovation,” the McKinsey authors write.

Furthermore, internal combustion hydrogen engines (H2-ICEs), “make use of current engineering know-how and jobs, draw on existing supply chains and production capacities in the automotive industry and do not create sustainability and integrity concerns around the supply and recycling of precious metals or rare earths.”

Major investment is following the increased interest in hydrogen. The Economist reports that 350 large-scale hydrogen projects have been announced globally and are expected to receive $500 billion in public and private funding through 2030. The objective is to increase hydrogen availability and lower prices.

Meanwhile, electric machines are here. Volvo is already taking orders for the ECR25 excavator and the L25 loader for January 2022 delivery. The company also announced in October the release of three additional electric compact machines for the European market next spring, with a North American release scheduled for later in 2022. John Deere will wait until its 310X backhoe can offer a full day of runtime before putting it on the market.

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to

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