Revamp the urge for replacement to make room for a construction industry that’s structurally green
In 2021, the construction industry had already committed to achieving several milestones until 2030, including a 60% nitrogen reduction and 0.4 megatons of CO2 savings. Faced with the aftermath of the perfect end-of-season storm in the field of emissions, the sector’s sustainability transition has been further put on edge. Due to price increases of raw materials and other resources, subjects such as ‘circularity’ and ‘recycling’ moved up the sector’s agenda. That said, following the State Council’s ruling in the Porthos case, the theme of ” going green” has been dominating every discourse in the field of construction. Fortunately, the government is coming to the rescue by stepping in and assisting the sector in transitioning towards a zero-emission end state. Yet, policies incorporating innovative solutions alongside purely financial measures could greatly accelerate this transition.
For a few months, there has been great urgency for construction companies and contractors alike to switch to nitrogen-free materials. The Porthos ruling in early November scrapped the much-debated construction exemption. This shortcut, enabling construction companies to bypass including their nitrogen emissions into permit applications, was declared illegal by the State Council in early November. Consequently, the multitude of diesel engines used in construction is factored into the authorization process. Therefore, making it increasingly difficult to qualify for a project permission than before. Where on paper there is no so-called “nitrogen allowance,” other emitters – such as factories or large agricultural businesses – must first be bought out. The nitrogen leeway this frees up can then be used for construction purposes. Since this often involves costly and lengthy legal procedures, construction companies themselves are increasingly being urged to reduce their emissions.
A prominent source of emissions in the construction sector is the plethora of diesel engines that power construction machinery. Although the expiration of the Porthos nitrogen waiver was no bolt from the blue for the construction industry, the sector is largely dependent on fossil-powered machinery. Because of the lack of capacity of the Dutch power grid and the temporary nature of construction activities, worksites must meet their own energy demands, making diesel (generators) the most convenient and cost-effective alternative. Additionally, the high acquisition costs of electric alternatives or of converting existing equipment make it difficult for construction companies to make the business case for a transition at scale: a new fleet of electric cranes or excavators quickly mounts up to considerable expenses.
Fortunately, the Dutch government is stepping up, recently announcing an additional €60 million to help the construction industry transition to more sustainable construction equipment by 2023. The extra budget is part of a new fund of 400 million euros made available to help the sector build in a greener way. The budget is intended to create the necessary financial leeway for construction companies to accelerate their transition to equipment powered by electricity or hydrogen rather than fossil fuel.
Clearly, the government’s quick and substantive aid in making the construction sector’s green transition is great news. Potentially, this allows for virtuous use of the Dutch nitrogen emergency: it is only a matter of time before an international market emerges for the expertise gained in making construction emission-free. But there is another way to further drive this transition that does not require a single euro of additional budget. Namely by not only concentrating on phasing out the old but simultaneously taking the accelerated adoption of new solutions into account.
A tangible example stems from Electriq Global, which specializes in innovative hydrogen storage. This company has developed several generators for the construction industry that are completely emission-free. Moreover, they are powered by a unique energy carrier: powdered hydrogen. The main advantage of this powder is that it has a higher energy density than the common hydrogen in gaseous form and is many times more user-friendly: instead of being compressed under high pressure, the powder can be transported in boxes and stored for years without energy loss. This new energy carrier, combined with generators that convert the powder into electricity, is increasingly being used to power construction machinery. Recently, together with RKB Crane Rental from Ridderkerk, for example, the company introduced the world’s first mobile crane powered by this powder.
However, given the relatively new technology used to power such new energy carriers, this also means that some licensing and approval processes are not yet optimally geared to this. Whereas it makes sense, for example, that a diesel generator should be required to use a particulate filter, such requirements for a generator that emits only water are naturally totally redundant.
Besides phasing out old equipment, focusing on the trajectory of accession for new solutions like these would allow the Dutch government to accelerate the transition to a green construction sector. And that won’t cost them a single additional euro. This would enable the most modern solutions to be put into use on an even larger scale and make the sector’s ambitions far easier to attain.