How Long Until a Totally-electric Off-highway World?

While the industry’s attention often seems focused on fossil-free steel as a solution to climate change, a growing number of innovative companies – both established and startups – are solving the other, bigger problem: the generation of CO2 over heavy equipment’s lifetime.

No one disagrees that fossil-free steel is a good idea. It’s even a great idea. Governments and industry alike are rallying around the cause, and there are two separate initiatives alone in Europe to produce steel without CO2 emissions.

Fortaco, as well, is part of these initiatives. Attacking the problem in its infancy is an important project, but what’s often forgotten in our excitement about green steel is that the problem has a dimension of much bigger magnitude, and that big problems require big solutions that address the problem from a variety of angles.

In 2021, Carbon Brief, the UK-based website covering climate science, mapped 553 steel plants and found them responsible for nine percent of global CO2 emissions. While creating green steel is of critical importance, in the grand scheme of things the vehicles that use that steel over their lifetimes will generate far more CO2 than the production of the steel itself.

The transport sector alone generates 22.3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention the off-highway sector, the massive machines that build the infrastructure that enable the transport sector to exist. “As a society, we’re actively attacking the problem in the cradle when it comes to CO2 emissions,” says Dr. Rafał Sornek, SVP Technology and Zero Emission Solutions at Fortaco, “when a much larger problem comes from a lifetime of carbon generated by the equipment that steel goes into. What many don’t know is that that problem is also actively being addressed, and the industry is a lot further along with a solution than many are aware.”

Electric experiments

How close are we to totally eliminating CO2 emissions in off-highway? No one has a definitive answer, but there are lots of companies asking the right questions.

Artisan Vehicle Systems is a California startup which caught the eye of the industry by demonstrating electric possibilities in underground mining early on with this 2016 video. AVS, which was acquired by Sandvik in 2019, enables zero underground emissions, produces less noise and heat, and does not require the addition of large infrastructure or power systems for a mine. Theoretically, provided it can be applied at the scale required, it enables massive savings on ventilation costs, the biggest source of power costs for underground mines.

Through its Electric Site Research Project, Volvo Construction Equipment and Skanska have imagined how a fossil-free worksite might look and built the world’s first emission-free quarry. Their objective to electrify every transport stage in a quarry: excavation, primary-, and secondary crushing. Tests, they claim, show a 98-percent reduction in carbon emissions, 70 percent reduction in energy costs, and 40 percent lower operator costs — which gives them the confidence to predict a total 25 percent reduction in total cost of operations.

If AVS imagined an electric mine, and Volvo built a complete utopian vision, where are we now and how far is the industry at large from adopting it? One glimpse at the current reality may be seen at the cargo handling solutions company, Kalmar.

Kalmar leads the way

„Electric machines are not new,“ explains Per-Erik Johansson, Technology Manager Electrification at Kalmar. „We’ve had forklifts with up to nine tons of lifting capacity since the 1980s. From 2010 to 2015, we also developed forklifts with a lifting capacity of up to 18 tons. Lead acid technology was used, and we increased the system voltage to 120 volts to manage the higher power need. We didn’t go to high voltage because the components and systems weren’t available. In those days, there was still little focus on zero emissions and the CO2 footprint, but we knew that would come. By the end of 2010s, technologies had developed that permitted the needed power and fast charging of big machines, and so we began researching them. It’s amazing how fast things can change.“

Kalmar is a part of Cargotec and supplies cargo handling solutions and services to ports, terminals, distribution centers, industrial and heavy industry. With around two billion euros in sales worldwide, the company offers one of the most accurate reflection of the market reality for electric machines. Johansson says almost half of the small- or medium-sized machines Kalmar sells are electric, the rest diesel. „Our bigger machine market share is in starting phase. Orders are in, and pilot customers are eager to get started. We see huge potential — and the slow takeover from diesel.“

Johansson says big questions for customers are total productivity and total cost of ownership (TCO). When it makes financial sense, it’s then just a matter of growing your mindset. „In the beginning, I myself was skeptical of an electric reach stacker weighing 150 tons. But when you start thinking about it and drill down into what needs to be in place, you realize that it’s possible for container handling, too.“ The barriers are simply disappearing. „Five years ago, we had maybe 10 to 15 percent of customers who believed in electric. Today, 80 or 90 percent say they’ll go electric.“

Changing mindsets

Those mindsets are changing across the entire supply chain, too.

Johansson cites batteries as an example of how fast things change. „Three or four years ago we were engaged in picking a battery supplier that would be the best for our applications. Now, three years later, there’s a new battery technology that almost doubles the energy content and performance, all at half the price. It used to be hard to find a supplier. Now they’re standing in line.“

Customers are another force driving the change, he says. Diesel customers, who once dominated the business, are thinking differently now. „Diesel customers used to be only capex oriented. They looked at the purchase price of the machine. They didn’t see opex part of the picture because diesel was a cheap fuel. But now, when we see diesel and gas prices climbing, it highlights the biggest difference in TCO: the price of diesel versus electricity.”

Regulatory and taxation are a third force in the mix. The European Commission’s proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 is an influencer. And taxation at least equally so. “To be able to reach this target we need to replace the dirty diesel vehicles now, or actually yesterday,” Johansson says, “since the lifetime of a machine is roughly 20 years.”

Johansson says the industry foresees future taxation on CO2, which means diesel. “Also,” he adds, “electricity is at least twice as efficient as diesel, if you look at the entire chain from energy content in diesel to movement of machine compared to the energy you need to put in electric.”

Buy since sometimes electricity is simply not available, Johansson points out that a fossil-free diesel substitute is an option. Kalmar’s HVO100 (Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil), for example, can reduce CO2 emissions in off-highway equipment by up to 90 percent.

Diesel won’t die

For the foreseeable future, diesel will continue to make sense for many applications, especially those in the off-highway segments where the job sites are far, far off-highway. But diesel does not have to be your grandfather’s diesel, either, as proved by a startup in Austria called Xelectrix Power.

Recognizing that many applications run diesel generators at inefficient load curves or have high start-up peaks, Xelectrix uses peak shaving to allow a generator to operate in optimal range, reducing fuel consumption by 40 percent and maintenance costs by half. Xelectrix adds a parallel platform technology, attaching a power box to supplement the generator. They offer four ranges of boxes, the largest in a 20-foot container with maximum 150 kW/320-480 kWh.

“When we hybridize a diesel generator, we plug ourselves into it, telling it to work harder,” says Shaun Montgomery, Xelectrix’s Chief Sales Officer. “A generator running at 90 percent capacity is more efficient than one running at 40 percent. You need less fuel to produce a kilowatt-hour when a generator has a load factor of between 85 to 95 percent. So you take a load, store the excess power in the batteries, and switch off the generator when the batteries are full. Run it efficiently or not at all.”

Xelectrix has created battery storage with power electronics, with a bi-directional hybrid frequency inverter at the heart, capable of pushing and pulling power, converting AC to DC and back again. „It has a grid-forming ability,“ says Montgomery. „When the grid fails, we create one, and photovoltaic, say, continues to work. PV looks after the load, and when more is produced than needed, it goes to the batteries.“

Xelectrix has created a massive, fuel-efficient, power pack that can power major job sites in both on- and off-grid situations.

Montgomery likens current times to undergoing another industrial revolution. „We’ve used diesel generators for well over one hundred years, and the energy crisis is forcing people to think about volts, kilowatts, and kilowatt hours. The mentality switch is happening extremely fast. On the construction side, if you’re not knowledgeable about how the regulations for building in cities are changing, if you don’t understand CO2 offset taxes, well you better get up to speed.“

Lighter materials

As technologies like Xelectrix’s enable industry to move closer to a zero-emissions mode, never has the weight of those vehicles been more important.

“Every kilogram of steel you save creates leverage in terms of reduction in the size of the battery,” says Fortaco’s Rafał Sornek. “Batteries are a significant part of capex, even when you consider falling prices.”

Sornek says many of Fortaco customers are asking for help in redesigning streel structures and cabins in the new electric versions of their machinery. “Once you begin the work of redesign, weight reduction is a natural part of it.” But he cautions that Tier 0.5 and Tier 1 suppliers should not wait on OEMs to supply the answers.

“The transition to zero emission solutions requires coordinated effort by all the players in the off-highway industry. But it requires also change in mindset of Tier 0.5 and Tier 1 suppliers who need to be involved in developing technologies and solutions much more intensively than in more stable times.”

Changing mindsets

To assist in the battle to win hearts and minds for electric solutions, Fortaco has formed a unit called Technology and Zero Emission Solutions, which Sornek now heads. “It’s a unit dedicated to supporting our customers on their journey to zero-emissions solutions,” he says.

On the technology side, the unit is charged with taking care of organic growth, including research on fossil-free steel applications and novel HVAC systems suited for electric vehicles. But it will also actively scan the market for partnerships and M&A opportunities in areas that can support Fortaco customers with zero-emissions objectives. “For any of our customers who on a journey to zero-emissions solutions,” says Sornek, “it’s our unit who can help take them there.”