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The words “quiet”, “clean”, and “green” are usually not associated with construction sites. However, the job site at Olav Vs gate, one of the busiest localities in Norway's capital city of Oslo, was unique. In a world-first, all on-site machinery—excavators, diggers, and loaders—were electric.
Work on the site began in September 2019, transforming a congested taxi-turning zone into a new pedestrian area. Locals initially raised eyebrows at what appeared to be another inconvenient construction site, but it became clear very quickly that something was different about this site. Indeed, this was a demonstration project for the world's first zero-emission urban construction site.
By substituting electric equipment for traditional diesel engines, everyone in the vicinity noticed an improvement in ambient noise and pollution levels. Additionally, workers reported improved communication on site as a result of lower noise levels and the working environment also felt a lot safer.
Oslo aspires to be a global leader in decarbonizing the construction industry. At the moment, the construction industry accounts for more than 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Construction's impact is even more apparent when considering CO₂ emissions from energy use – the sector accounts for 38% of global emissions.
In Oslo, the picture is a little different, with construction accounting for 7% of total emissions, though it remains a significant source of local air and noise pollution. However, the city is eager to continue improving with the Olav Vs gate zero-emission pilot site as an example.
Norway enjoys the rare distinction of having an electricity grid powered by 98% renewable energy, the majority of it coming from hydropower, making it an ideal testing ground for zero-emission sites.
In total, the Olav Vs gate pilot project saved 35,000 liters of diesel and the equivalent of 92,500 kg of CO₂ by using electric construction machines. This is the equivalent of removing 20 automobiles from the road for a year.
However, they were unable to completely eliminate emissions from the project due to several obstacles, most notably a propane burner that could not be rebuilt or replaced with an emission-free alternative. The city maintains that it is extremely pleased with the outcome, saving 99% of emissions compared to if the project had been completed using regular diesel.
The city now intends for all municipal construction sites to be zero-emission by 2025 and for all public and private construction work to be zero-emission by 2030. Six additional major cities in Norway have recently committed to the same goals as Oslo.
Nonetheless, the pilot project in Olav Vs gate demonstrates to the industry that an emission-free construction site is feasible and will become the future standard. The city has been utilizing its purchasing power as a strategic tool to move ahead. Since 2019, public contracts for construction work such as roads, schools, nursery homes, water, and sewage pipes have been awarded to firms that use zero-emission machinery and trucks.
If Oslo set the precedent, Copenhagen and Helsinki quickly followed suit with zero-emission construction sites. However, the construction industry as a whole is notorious for its resistance to change and has historically been motivated by cost savings rather than greenhouse gas reductions.
The Ampd Enertainer is one such battery system that was recently trialed in Hong Kong. It is a cutting-edge, compact battery system that has the potential to completely replace the diesel generators that currently power the world's infrastructure.
The founders of Ampd Energy, that manufactures the Enertainer, want to lay the groundwork for beginning the electrification of the construction industry. At the moment, the Enertainer is being used by 18 of Hong Kong's largest construction and property developers.
Typically, it powers cranes, hoists, welders, and other electrically powered construction equipment. According to the Enertainer's manufacturers, it can reduce carbon emissions by 85%– each battery system deployed on a construction site saves the equivalent of emissions caused by 200-400 cars. Additionally, it produces 1/30th of the noise pollution produced by a diesel generator.
Modular construction is another innovation aimed at increasing efficiency and reducing waste. The process involves the construction of a building, or portions of it, off-site, providing a number of advantages.
As northern Europe has limited daylight during winters, builders in Denmark and the Nordic countries don't spend much time out in the field. Rather than that, many buildings incorporate a large number of prefabricated elements. This is a trend that actually contributes to waste reduction.
However, while innovations such as electrification, digitization, and modular construction all contribute to the industry's decarbonization and waste reduction efforts, they cannot be always implemented together.
Although progress is slow, it is worth noticing. Building on the success of its first zero-emission urban construction site, the City of Oslo anticipates that approximately 10-20 new projects will commence this year using heavy-duty zero-emission equipment such as diggers, wheel loaders, trucks, and drill rigs.
Additionally, Oslo's goal of zero-emission construction sites by 2025 has sent a strong signal, and many construction companies are preparing for this transition.
Meanwhile, the Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) has launched a Clean Construction Declaration, which includes a pledge to reduce emissions from construction sites, among other commitments. From 2025 on, the declaration calls for the procurement and use of only zero-emission construction machinery.
At the moment, approximately 40 cities worldwide have signed the declaration, including Oslo, Budapest, and even large cities outside of Europe, such as Los Angeles and Mexico City.
With sprawling cities all over the world expressing interest, the hope is that more will join, and a zero-emission future for construction may well be within reach.