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Powering electric HGVs via overhead charging cables is a much cheaper solution for decarbonising the haulage sector than other methods, according to a mechanical engineer overseeing a government-funded project into the idea.

Professor David Cebon, at the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight (CSRF), said topping up much smaller batteries on HGVs through catenary cables on the road was “the most technologically ready” system for road freight and was “surprisingly effective”.

He was speaking after a consortium that included the CSRF, Scania, Siemens Mobility and SPL Powerlines completed the first stage of a feasibility study into long-haul electrified HGVs.

Professor Cebon said there were similar systems running in Germany, Sweden and the US and they relied on the same technology as electric trains: “It’s not just a fantasy in the UK, there’s quite a lot of interest in Europe and India and China,” he said.

“What it means is much, much smaller batteries. You could have a 150kw/h battery in almost every truck in the UK.

“In general, it reduces battery sizes by at least a factor of two, if not more than that.

“These are much more efficient even than straight battery electric vehicles.”

Professor Cebon added: “In the UK, we’ve concluded we need 5,000 – 7,000km of [cables] in the UK and that will cost about £20bn, which seems like a lot of money except that the government’s budget for roads for 2020-2025 is £28bn.

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“So when you put the costs into perspective they are not quite that bad.

“There’s no doubt that if the government has to pay for it, it’s much cheaper to put in the infrastructure than to pay hydrogen subsidies forever.”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps referred to the idea when he was probed by MPs on the transport select committee last week about how the haulage sector will decarbonise.

He said: “We have already had an extensive discussion about bigger vehicles, buses and lorries.

“There’s been massive investment into one experiment using overhead wires for trucks.

“I am not sure we want to do that to all our motorways, but it’s an interesting in principle investigation,” he added.

The Department for Transport was asked what plans it had for testing electrified cables on the UK’s road network and a spokesman said: “Following the success of the Zero Emission Road Freight Trials programme, we are now working to expand the programme to trial multiple zero emission HGV technologies on UK roads.

“As we drive towards our net zero targets, we’re committed to making our air cleaner and the way we transport goods kinder to the environment.

“We will announce further information regarding future trials in due course.”