Mar 22, 2012
Chris Salamone

Sweden Considers Electrifying Highway

From a global perspective, the concept of electrifying a road, instead of each individual car, is well known. After successful applications in San Francisco and other major city centers, there can be no doubt that overhead electric cables are an efficient way to operate public transit. But little and less is understood about how the public, or industry, might benefit from a similar system. Volvo and Sweden hope to change all that.

In June, the Swedish Traffic Administration will consider a proposal to build a fast-track electrification project near the country’s northern perimeter. The plan aims to boost a 62 mile segment of road which connects a new mine and train depot – streamlining the shuttling of iron ore.

We shouldn’t be too surprised though. As a matter of policy, Sweden intends to become fossil fuel free by 2030.

Which sounds a tad hopeful, right? In theory a 62 mile electrified road would be the country’s first footsteps into any potential freedom from fossil fuels. Second, juicing such a small swath of road would be substantially cheaper than the alternative of building and deploying a full scale railroad. But perhaps the greatest argument for electrification comes from efficiency. Dump trucks, bolstered by an electric infrastructure, could potentially move much faster than San Francisco’s trolleys or even a would-be railroad. Enter Volvo’s ‘continuous electric drive’ theory.

Currently, there are two principle ideas for how to best electrify roads: from above (like trolley cables) OR from below. Numerous automakers, including Volvo, would love to see a sub-vehicle charging system which actively charges cars in motion – and so would a group of engineers working for Elways in Sweden. Aside from more appreciable aesthetics, the advantages to a ground-based charging system are vast: all cars (regardless of size) can connect to the power source, the environmental impact is slighter, a shorter distance of connection to an electric motor or battery, and, most importantly, the potential to smoothly transition between electrified and non-electrified roads via traveling charge arms.

Perhaps optimistically, the cost estimate for Sweden’s 62 mile project is 2.6 billion crowns or $367 million US dollars. Someone will have to do some major number crunching between now and June in order to justify an electrified roadway. But, since fossil fuel engines operate around 30-40% efficiency, while electric motors run at 90%, a powered road might make a great deal of sense.

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