As companies work to develop new technologies to power agricultural and construction equipment, a lot of attention has been focused on the use of batteries and battery technology. To be sure, battery technology has garnered a lot of attention as a potential way to wean the industry off of oil-based power systems.
And while battery technology has shown some promise, it does have its limitations when powering larger equipment. It’s something Tim Burnhope, chief innovation and growth officer for JCB, explained recently to select media at JCB’s world headquarters in Rocester, England.
The company was sharing its “Road to Zero” campaign aimed at reducing emissions from the company’s equipment offerings. Burnhope explained that JCB’s engineering journey is ongoing, and the company has learned a lot about what is possible, and what is not possible, when it comes to alternative power sources.
“From an engineering standpoint, anything is possible,” he says. “However, there are limitations to any technology when it comes to expense, as well as how well it works on a jobsite.”
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Much of today’s push toward electric vehicle technology has been driven by the automobile industry.
“Cars are a pretty easy target, because they are probably the easiest to do from an engineering standpoint,” Burnhope says. “And there’s a massive volume.” But in other industries, electric power has significant limitations.
“The industry is studying other uses of electric technology, but there are challenges,” he says. And perhaps the most daunting challenge is the technology itself.
The first obstacle is scaling the size of the battery to the equipment to provide optimal power. That technology has proved to work well in JCB’s electric product offerings, which include compact excavators, telehandlers, site dumpers and forklifts. It’s proved to be a popular technology, especially in areas where emissions are an issue.
But when it comes to larger equipment, simply adding battery packs to supply the power just isn’t practical.
“Our engineers looked at larger equipment using batteries,” Burnhope says. “But we would have to add essentially $500,000 worth of batteries. That shocked us a little because it is 4.3 times the cost of the machine. As engineers, anything is technically possible. But we started to test the bounds here of common sense.”
Reducing the amount of battery power is possible, but it also reduces the work time of the machine, either facilitating the need for additional battery packs to work as a replacement, or waiting for batteries to charge.
Another significant challenge is simply supplying the power to charge these batteries. For the construction and agricultural industries, the infrastructure is simply not there. “We have customers who work at remote sites and are often on the move. It’s simply not practical to provide a dedicated electrical connection,” Burnhope says. And in some cases, diesel generators may be needed to supply the electricity needed for charging. And that, Burnhope says, defeats the purpose. “The danger is all of this becomes greenwashing. And it's just wrong.”
“There's a place for electric products, but it's probably the smaller compact, where you're not working with massive energy all day. But if you're working all day, full power, then you've got some real challenges. We were told very clearly by our customers, we want to be mobile. And we want maximum uptime.”
And what will continually be an issue with batteries are the batteries themselves.
“The cost of electric equipment will be driven by the cost of the batteries, and that cost will not be going down anytime soon,” Burnhope says. He explains that early on in the road to electric power was the thought that additional battery production would drive down the cost. “We work with a lot of battery manufacturers, and not one of them has had a significant price reduction,” Burnhope. The reason: battery prices are directly impacted by the cost of the underlying precious metals used to make the batteries. A shortage of these precious metals, including nickel, copper and lithium, will keep prices high.
“We're not vehicles, we're not cars. So for JCB, it is very important to understand that it is the machinery we're looking at, which has a completely different energy demand,” Burnhope says.