National Highways to use hydrogen powered construction machinery


10 July 2023

Press Release

National Highways to use hydrogen powered construction machinery

National Highways to purchase largest volume of low-carbon hydrogen ever bought in UK transport sector  

National Highways has today (10 July 2023) launched one of the UK’s largest ever purchases of low-carbon hydrogen, in a move that would reduce the carbon footprint of the Lower Thames Crossing, accelerate the construction industry’s shift away from diesel, and kick start the highly anticipated development of a hydrogen ecosystem in the Thames Estuary with the potential to grow the economy. 

As a part of National Highways’ commitment to net zero maintenance and construction emissions by 2040, the proposed Lower Thames Crossing has been designated a pathfinder project to explore carbon neutral construction. The scheme seeks to remove an estimated total of 66 million litres of diesel from its worksites.

The move kick starts the Construction Leadership Council’s government-backed route map to eliminate diesel from most construction sites by 2035, by giving major firms and suppliers the confidence to invest in hydrogen skills and technologies.

National Highways is aiming to buy the supply, storage and distribution of over 6 million kilograms of hydrogen to use on the project, which will replace around 20 million litres of diesel. Projects such as HS2 have trialled small hydrogen generators, however the Lower Thames Crossing would be the first in the UK to use the fuel on a large scale to power its major construction vehicles such as excavators and dump trucks.

The project also plans to use electric plant for static or slow-moving machinery, where a mains connection is possible and in smaller equipment where battery solutions are viable. Other renewable fuel sources and biofuels may also be used. 

Matt Palmer, Executive Director, Lower Thames Crossing said: “The proposed Lower Thames Crossing is designed to be the greenest road ever built in the UK, with the aim of being carbon neutral in construction. At the heart of these plans is the use of clean low-carbon hydrogen power, and by using it on such a large scale to power our heavy construction machinery that is traditionally hard to electrify, we can significantly reduce our carbon footprint, accelerate the construction industry’s shift away from diesel, and help kick start the creation of a hydrogen ecosystem in the Thames Estuary.”

Nusrat Ghani MP, Minister for Industry and Economic Security, said: “Last month we unveiled our new Route Map to drive diesel out of construction, marking a vital step towards achieving our ambitions of net zero by 2050. I’m pleased to now see National Highways' plans to replace diesel with hydrogen on the proposed Lower Thames Crossing project.

“This will not only drive forward our construction sector’s net zero transition but also help to create a new hydrogen ecosystem in the Thames Estuary, moving us forward towards a cleaner, greener industrial future.”

The move would be a step change for the construction industry and builds on the work of the Construction Leadership Council’s CO2nstruct Zero task force, which recently published its government-backed route map to eliminate diesel from most construction sites by 2035.

Traditionally the industry has been reliant on diesel to power heavy machinery which are hard to electrify and not suitable for batteries due to their significant power requirements. By securing the supply of such a high volume of hydrogen, National Highways is giving its supply chain the confidence to invest in the next generation of hydrogen powered machines, as well as develop the new skills required to operate and maintain them. With 45% of the project’s workforce to be recruited from the local area, this will leave a legacy of green skills in the region.

Alasdair Reisner, CEO of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association said: “We have a shared challenge to drive carbon out of the construction industry, finding alternatives to diesel is vital. The journey will be difficult unless we start to make progress now and the leadership shown by the Lower Thames Crossing to use hydrogen at this unprecedented scale shows it can be done, and invites others to take a similarly bold step forward.”

National Highways will work closely with the Department for Transport and the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero to ensure the hydrogen purchased for the proposed Lower Thames Crossing scheme helps to drive decarbonisation and strategic development.

Hydrogen hubs are already emerging across the UK, and the certainty and scale of demand created during the construction of the Lower Thames Crossing would accelerate the establishment of a hydrogen ecosystem in the Thames Estuary, which the government sponsored Thames Estuary Growth Board predicts would grow the economy with an added £3.8 billion GVA and 9,000 highly skilled jobs by 2035.  The Thames Freeport which is directly adjacent to the proposed tunnelling compound has already been identified as a potential hydrogen supply site.   

Kate Willard, Thames Estuary Envoy and chair of the Thames Estuary Growth Board, said: “I am delighted to see the Lower Thames Crossing leading the charge to net zero in the construction sector. We have proven the demand-led case for investment in hydrogen in the Thames Estuary, and the Lower Thames Crossing will be instrumental in making this a reality. This extraordinary and much needed transport project is a clear demonstration of how we can make a successful transition away from fossil fuels not only in construction but also other sectors including maritime and logistics.”

Martin Whiteley, CEO of Thames Freeport said: “As well as offering attractive business incentives and significant amount of shovel-ready land for development, the freeport has a mandate support levelling up, innovation and moving to Net Zero. Thames Freeport stands ready to play a leading role in developing the region’s hydrogen ecosystem. We are delighted to be working with the Thames Estuary Growth Board to identify the opportunities across our sites for production, supply, refuelling and end use and how this will support the region’s hydrogen ecosystem.”

The Lower Thames Crossing is a proposed new road and tunnel across the river Thames east of London. The detailed examination of the Lower Thames Crossing by the Government’s independent planning experts, the Planning Inspectorate, began on 20 June 2023. If the plans are approved, construction is currently expected to start in 2026.

Notes to Editors

National Highways is the wholly government-owned company responsible for modernising, maintaining and operating England’s motorways and major A roads.

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The Lower Thames Crossing is a proposed new road and tunnel across the river Thames east of London and will ease capacity on the Dartford Crossing – one of the UK’s most strategically important, but also most congested roads – by taking around 13 million vehicles off it each year. It would almost double road capacity over the Thames east of London.

National Highways has today published the Lower Thames Crossing’s first Sustainability report, it can be found here. It contains a summary of the project’s plans to be the greenest road ever, and contains references to our commitment to reduce carbon, enhance the surrounding environment and support the local community. Some highlights from the report include:

  • A look back at some of our milestones over the past year, including our 1m trees announcement, PAS 2080 certification, first trees planted at Hole Farm, £250,000 awarded to 55 local projects through our Community Fund
  • Our commitment to low carbon hydrogen
  • Detailed case studies on some of the community and environmental initiatives we are supporting through National Highways’ Designated Funds programme
  • Our dedication to support local jobs and deliver a green skills legacy through our carbon literacy training

The Department for Transport policy on hydrogen combustion:

Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology produces zero harmful emissions at the exhaust (the only emission is water), is energy dense, recyclable and maintainable. Hydrogen Internal Combustion Engines (H2-ICE) burn hydrogen gas, resulting in trace levels of CO2, and some nitrogen oxides (NOx) and therefore cannot be classed as zero emission. However, hydrogen combustion used in non-road mobile machinery (NRMM) is not currently subject to zero emission phase out dates for zero emission vehicles.

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Harry Bellew

Media Relations Manager