The switch to electric

The switch to electric

  • Date: Tuesday 21st January 2020
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A trial using electric and hybrid plant on a sensitive central London construction site has cut the risk of work-related injuries and brought wider environmental benefits.

Sustainability, carbon emissions and greater awareness of impact on the global climate are driving the agenda of the construction sector. Cleaner, greener ways of resourcing, fuelling and managing our sites are becoming the focus during the planning and delivery of works. We have less time than ever to make changes to reduce the effects generated through 200 years of fossil fuel consumption, and the construction industry needs to play its part in this process. 

Construction and engineering company Costain is supporting its clients and its supply chain and enabling the uptake of low-carbon technologies, which include electric, hydrogen and hybrid plant, according to the contractor’s group carbon manager Lara Young. 

This move is in line with the company’s climate change strategy and ambitious carbon reduction targets, in support of the government’s plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions to almost zero by 2050.

By putting sustainability at the forefront of construction projects, businesses can achieve savings and improve efficiencies. Key among these are the safety and occupational health benefits. 

Costain, as one half of the Costain-Skanska JV, has been working with its supply chain to explore opportunities to reduce risk and eliminate carbon from working processes. The team is now trialling electric and hybrid plant on urban and rural sites. 

Recent construction activities on the High Speed 2 rail link’s enabling works contract at Euston in central London provided the opportunity to trial and implement a diverse selection of new-to-market small, nimble electric plant to deliver safety, innovation and value for money. By using these assets strategically, Costain engineered a sustainable approach to support a 200-strong construction and archaeological team working on the largest-ever excavation of a burial ground in the UK. 

All the work on the St James’s Gardens site was carried out beneath a substantial encapsulation structure, as required under Schedule 20 of the High Speed Rail (London-West-Midlands) Act 2017. The team brought in high-performing electric and hybrid plant as an alternative to conventional equipment, to limit exposure to potentially high emissions and noise. This approach also resulted in a reduction in manual handling, as small, ride-on, 1.1-tonne electric dumpers replaced the traditional archaeologist’s wheelbarrow. Using electric plant became a key way to deliver sustainable management of the 33,000-cubic-metre excavation.

Engaging the Supply Chain

Since 2012, Costain has been working with its diverse supply chain to examine how electric and hybrid plant can be adopted, improved and used on major infrastructure projects. A key driver is a determination to bring occupational health and safety benefits; another being to reduce impacts on the environment. 

The Costain plant steering group has played a strategically important role. By creating an open forum for plant suppliers and their end users, Costain has been able to follow and guide the successful development of electric plant and equipment. This ensures that the group is positioned to trial and adopt it as soon as suitable sites are identified. 

Collaborative working allows the joint venture to influence and engage during the early development of new products. An open forum limits duplication and ensures the right equipment is ordered for the project, thereby maximising the opportunities for learning and development. And the building of lasting relationships creates a high-profile platform for delivering excellence through sustainability.

Companies including Lynch Plant Hire, Flannery Plant Hire, A-Plant, JCB, Wacker Neuson, Speedy, Gap and M O’Brien Plant Hire have sought to bring products to market that can be trialled in live construction environments, thus ensuring a collaborative approach and direct, effective feedback from a prospective tier-one client.

Key to the delivery of many large infrastructure projects is the efficient, sustainable and safe management of materials and bulk excavations. Identifying the correct pieces of electric and hybrid plant at the earliest stages of any project ensures a sustained period for conducting trials, adequate time for operator familiarisation and feedback, and time for the team to adapt to the new technology on site.


The industry is changing and there are some robust and user-friendly pieces of electric plant and equipment on the market. Numbers and availability are still limited, although increased demand and willingness to adopt new technologies will change this. 

Archaeological works have benefited hugely from the innovative application of electric plant, which has increased predicted work outputs by up to 500%. The combined effect of electric excavators and small electric dumpers has reduced manual handling hours substantially and, as a result, there were few reported musculoskeletal injuries over a one-year period. This was significant among archaeological contractors, who are prone to these owing to the nature of their work and use of more traditional hand tools.

Electric plant has been key to delivering a lean and streamlined approach to a challenging urban site in central London. By eliminating the need for regular refuelling, the impacts of noise, emissions and vehicle movements have been mitigated. Although it has not been possible to field a 100% electric and hybrid fleet, the benefits of selecting the right electric plant for the right job have provided demonstrable safety, health and environmental value throughout the duration of the works. 

Source: IOSH Magazine

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