Aecon, one of Canada’s leading construction firms, is partnering with Volvo Construction Equipment to launch its second pilot of electric heavy machinery on worksites in Ontario, a sign of growing industry interest in zero-emission equipment
The ambient soundtrack of most Canadian communities is construction. Whether it’s a highrise or a subdivision, the roaring engines, exhaust fumes and shouts of crews permeate and pollute the environment.
The thrum of a worksite is accepted as the price of bigger cities, better infrastructure and modern amenities. But one Canadian construction company is rethinking the environmental cost of it by planning for an electric machinery transition.
“In April 2021, Aecon announced a GHG emissions reduction goal. One of the biggest contributors to our GHG emissions is definitely “yellow iron,” or construction equipment,” says Prabhjit Banga, director of sustainability at Aecon Group Inc., in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.
“We started having conversations with our vendors and we came across the [ECR25] Volvo electric mini excavator. We decided to trial it…the purpose was to see how the electric excavator performs compared to a traditional excavator, as well as get feedback from our on-site crew and our operations teams to see what their experience was like.”
In what Aecon claims is a Canada-first, the Volvo electric mini excavator went into operation last fall. Its task was, for a month, to dig the trenches for new fibre optic cables in the Regent Park neighbourhood in downtown Toronto.
“We were told by Volvo to like really put it to work; don’t shy away from really using it for the day-to-day tasks that you would traditionally be using your other diesel excavator for,” says Banga.
“We did take that to heart. Our teams used the electric excavator for all the tasks that they would perform on-site. They found that it can do all of the same tasks and has the same capabilities as a diesel-powered excavator.”
Aecon’s plan is full electrification — eventually. There is a large industry-wide gap to close with bringing down heavy-duty machinery costs and also finding the right electric machine to size the job. But Aecon is moving aggressively and is ready to move into phase two of its pilot program.
Electric Autonomy can exclusively report that Aecon will be bringing back the electric excavator and, for the first time, testing one of Volvo’s electric wheel loaders in the coming weeks alongside it in another month-long pilot.
“We’ll be the first construction company in Canada to trial it,” says Banga.
“We’ll be providing that realtime feedback, testing out the efficiency, the emissions reduction and the employee experience.”
And from there Banga estimates it’s not far off before zero-emission versions of truly heavy, heavy-duty equipment starts to arrive on Aecon’s sites. Volvo confirms it is actively building out electric versions of its heaviest construction machinery. Aecon, Banga says, is looking forward to testing those vehicles, which are expected in the next two years.
Managing the machine
Aecon’s initial electric machinery pilot was, by its and Volvo’s view, a success. Not only did the zero-emission excavator perform to the company’s needed standard all but one of its work days, but it received positive feedback from the crew to the tune of notably improved air quality and a fraction of the noise pollution. These results — both metric and anecdotal — were fed back to Volvo in realtime reporting from Aecon.
“One of the things that I learned to my surprise is the value that customers are placing on the fact that the electric machines are quiet, they are low-vibration and they are low-emission,” says Ray Gallant, Pennsylvania-based vice-president of product management and productivity at Volvo Construction Equipment in an interview with Electric Autonomy.
“When you get told by an operator that low emissions is nice and what they really appreciate is that the end of the day they are far less fatigued after operating compared to a conventional diesel machine, that really speaks to us. Not only are we being friendly to the environment, we’re being friendly to the operators.”
On top of the upfront benefits to site environment, behind the scenes Aecon didn’t even need to install special charging infrastructure. Using Level 1 charging — a standard 110V plug — to charge the excavator overnight, Banga says, restored the battery to full charge by the time construction resumed the following morning.
While charging electric machinery outside of large urban centres still presents some significant challenges, Banga says, at this stage, the most prohibitive aspect of transitioning a construction fleet is the machines themselves.
“It’s about two to three times the cost of traditional construction equipment,” say Banga. “Based on the trends that I’m seeing that will take five to 10 years for the price point to be equal.”
Canada an important potential market
Canada’s construction equipment market is estimated to reach “US$4.85 billion and a volume of 39,484 units by 2027” according to a report published this month by Research and Markets, which is significant growth from today’s estimated US$3.8-billion market.
The growth projected in Canada indicates an opportunity for electric heavy-machinery, if production can scale quickly, to meet the need and begin transitioning the industry in earnest. It’s an opportunity that Volvo recognizes and is trying to capitalize on by rapidly rolling out its North American electric machinery line and making Canada an early target market.
“Canada is a very important market for Volvo,” says Gallant. “What we’re finding is that Canadians are very accepting of these new technologies and willing to try them. That’s one of the reasons why we went to Canada early on. There are some unique challenges for heavy equipment in Canada, so that’s something that we’re also well aware of.”
Gallant says he is not concerned about tailoring heavy electric machinery to withstand the Canadian environment. He points to diesel machines that have always needed solutions added to their fuels to keep them from freezing as a comparable to the adjustments needed to maximize battery life in the field.
“We can’t change the physics. When it gets into very cold temperatures, batteries do not have as much capacity as they do in ideal temperatures. But we can change how efficiently we use that energy,” says Gallant. “We can put systems in that will preheat batteries and make sure they don’t drop too much in efficiency. We can make better use of the energy that’s available.”
The biggest hurdle: charging electric machinery
Aecon is confident it will be able to manage the charging needs for its upcoming urban electric wheel loader and excavator pilot with no extra infrastructure needed on-site. But both OEMs and construction companies know that once bigger electric machines are in operation on more remote sites, solutions will be needed.
“From a policy point of view, we need to concentrate a bit more on the infrastructure,” says Gallant. “How are we going to refuel these different technologies as they come out?
There are no obvious solutions yet, but Aecon’s Banga says the company is looking at a combination of investing more in expanding their existing charging infrastructure within the next three to five years.
“We’ve [also] been trialing portable charging on a smaller scale on some of our sites. What it looks like is it’s, essentially, a huge battery pack that you would plug in. There’s a lot of innovation happening in this space…we want to be at the forefront of adopting new technologies. It’s a big part of our long-term strategy.”