Opinion – Destination over journey

In 2001, the European Union ratified an item of legislation called the Large Combustion Plant Directive to limit flue gas emissions from a variety of fossil-fuelled power plant, specifying – in particular – emission limits for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and dust.

Under the terms of the directive, combustion plants built after 1987 had to comply with specific emissions limits. From 2007, plant built earlier than that could either opt to comply with the emissions limits, or “opt out”. Across Europe, 205 plants opted out.
Among the plants closed as a direct result of this directive were Grain, Kingsnorth, Tilbury, Cockenzie, Ironbridge and – of course – Didcot A; meaning that the UK had the largest proportion of opted-out plant in terms of total capacity.

Fast forward to today and the UK faces the very real prospect of winter blackouts this winter amidst an escalating energy crisis.

The Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is currently under construction. It is over budget and behind schedule. It is unlikely to begin rectifying the UK’s energy shortfall before the summer of 2027. A second nuclear power plant – Sizewell C – remains under governmental review. Even if it were green-lighted today, it would not generate power before 2034.

Although it is often described as the “Road to Zero”, the facts suggest that there is precious little thought to the road or the journey upon it; there is merely a single-minded and unwavering focus upon the final destination. Sadly, even though the replacement power plants have yet to come online, history is already repeating; and it is repeating within the field of demolition and construction equipment.

Nations and individual cities across the globe have set ambitious targets for carbon neutrality by 2030. Laudable though these aims are, they once again focus upon the destination and not upon the journey.

As the recent Bauma exhibition proved, every major equipment manufacturer worth its salt now has an electric alternative machine or two up its sleeve. And very good they are too. They are quieter, zero emissions at the point of use, and generally pack a bit more punch.

But if the UK really does face winter blackouts, how are these machines to be charged? Is zero emissions at the point of use really the answer when they are charged with electricity produced in less-than-sustainable ways? Electric machines are already more expensive than the traditional alternative and now electricity costs more than diesel. So where is the incentive for demolition and construction companies to invest?

We have generations of operators and fitters that know precisely how to get the best from a diesel engine. How to make it sing and to make it last longer. The equivalent skills do not yet exist in the field of electric-powered equipment. And we know from our collective mobile phone experience that lithium-ion batteries deteriorate over time. There is already a question mark over the ability of an electric machine to complete a full working shift before it requires recharging. What if the battery holds less and less charge as the machine ages? And what does that mean for machine resale values?

The problem is that decisions like the Large Combustion Plant Directive and the Paris Climate Agreement are made in isolation, far away from reality. They are then embraced by the types of people that will gladly Super Glue themselves to a motorway to secure their 15 minutes of fame. Meanwhile, here in the real world, working men and women are doing their best to go about their business; and making their own contributions to the safeguarding of the planet.

It would be nice to think that, having already fallen into the environmental “destination over journey” trap twice in recent times, we might have learned our lesson; that having had our fingers burned twice that we might approach any new departure with greater caution. Apparently not.

At Bauma 2022, a number of companies – most notably Liebherr and Hyundai – showcased their first forays into the field of fuel cell and hydrogen powered equipment. The fact that they have developed such revolutionary new machines in such a short space of time (and amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic) says much for the ingenuity and innovation that resides within the construction equipment business.
Those manufacturers have fulfilled their part of the bargain, producing equipment that can run on this new “super fuel”

But where is this new super fuel? Where do we get it? How do we store it? Is it toxic, flammable or even explosive? Does it require specialist knowledge and training to operate and maintain it? What impact will it have upon machine working times and resale values?

Unfortunately, world leaders and nation states have once again drawn a big red cross on a map to show our next destination. And once again, they have failed to provide another map of how to get there.