Cleaner alternatives for powering construction equipment and fleets are required for a net zero emissions world.   -  Photo: Work Truck

Cleaner alternatives for powering construction equipment and fleets are required for a net zero emissions world. 

Photo: Work Truck

Diesel’s time is up. Not only has it soared almost 50% in a year, but it is also harmful to the environment. With 98% of construction’s energy use coming from diesel in the U.S., according to Diesel Technology Forum, it’s time for a change.

If we want to make it to zero net emissions by 2050, cleaner alternatives for powering construction equipment and fleets are required.

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) also agrees. Jeremy Harsin, construction market director at AEM member company Cummins, stated three solutions are necessary for fleets to be less reliant on diesel:

  1. Completely replacing the diesel engine.
  2. Reconstructing engines to run on lower-carbon fuels.
  3. Making diesel engines their most efficient.

Harsin also said, “The combination of duty cycle and available infrastructure is going to decide what wins out, but they’re probably all going to have their place in the world.”

Luckily, there are several diesel alternatives to choose from — electric, hydrogen, biodiesel, and other biofuels.

Switching to Electric

Going electric has many benefits, making it a viable alternative in the construction space. On top of zero emissions, electric is quieter, has an instant response, and has fewer components needed for maintenance.

Because of this, compact electric equipment has gained popularity. Companies such as Volvo are selling electric compact excavators and wheel loaders in North America this year, and it recently expanded its offering to five machines.

“Battery power density is increasing all the time, and we’re seeing a number of different technologies that make better use of battery energy,” said Ray Gallant, vice president of product management and productivity at AEM member company Volvo Construction Equipment.

“Electric is happening now as machines are starting to be commercially available,” says Chris Sleight, managing director at AEM member Off-Highway Research. Although now quite expensive compared to their diesel counterparts, at some point the economic argument will be there,” Sleight added.

And if there is a concern about running out of a charge in rural areas, OEMs sell chargers with their electric machines. Solar charging is  a potential option as well.

The Beginning Stages of Hydrogen

Hydrogen is another diesel alternative, but it has a long way to go. The main obstacle in creating a hydrogen-fueled world is infrastructure.

AEM stated: “Construction equipment powered by hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen-fueled engines are – at least at this point – in the prototype stage.” And most of the hydrogen fueling stations are only in California.

But this is just the beginning stages. Hydrogen has the potential to completely replace diesel-fueled engines and charge battery-electric machines.

Will Diesel Disappear Forever?

The goal is to reduce global emissions by 2050. Does that mean completely leaving behind diesel?

Cummins reminds us that compared with Tier 1 engines, Tier 4 Final engines offer a 96% reduction of oxides of nitrogen and a 97% reduction in particulate matter.

“The U.S. is also likely to see Tier 5 emissions regulations by the end of the decade,” Harsin said.

And according to AEM, “California has already discussed enacting a Tier 5 regulation in 2024 with implementation to start in 2028. Another consideration is the gradual retirement of construction’s aging fleet. Construction machines have a relatively long life; plenty of Tier 3 engine-powered machines are still plugging away on jobsites. Cat, for example, estimated the average age of its field population to be 11.3 years.”

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