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HomeSupplier insightsSharing expertise in the decarbonisation journey - with Jamie Colquhoun, Transport Energy Advisor, Costain

Sharing expertise in the decarbonisation journey – with Jamie Colquhoun, Transport Energy Advisor, Costain

Jamie Colquhoun, Transport Energy Advisor, Costain
Jamie Colquhoun, Transport Energy Advisor, Costain


With a history that dates back to the 1860s, Costain has been the driving force behind many of the most iconic infrastructure projects in both the UK and further afield. It was Costain, for example, that not only built the Channel Tunnel, but also expanded London St Pancras to accommodate Eurostar. Around ten years prior to the opening of the Channel Tunnel, the whole of London became protected by another Costain mega project: The Thames Barrier and with a long list of other major achievements, few Civil Engineering giants have the breadth of experience and expertise that has developed at Costain.

At the same time, developing large infrastructure projects means a great deal of responsibility in managing environmental impacts and mitigating any negative effects. As far back as the 1930s, Costain was channelling waste heat from Battersea Power Station to its innovative, centralised heating system, serving hundreds of apartments at Dolphin Square, Pimlico. This approach was undoubtedly ahead of its time and so perhaps not surprisingly, Costain is now at the forefront of striking the essential balance of developing vital infrastructure to improve the lives of the current and future generations, and at the same time recognising and acting upon the demands of sustainability.

High on the list of any large industrial operator, is the impact of its transport, plant and employee mobility needs and Essential Fleet Manager sat down with Jamie Colquhoun, Costain’s Transport Energy Advisor who spoke about how not only how the civil engineering giant is working towards demanding targets in reducing emissions, but also how expertise and learnings are now being  provided to other organisations to set out their road maps to decarbonisation.


Q: It is important for all organisations to work towards the decarbonisation of transport operations, but do you think it is particularly important that an infrastructure provider, such as Costain, sets an example to industry?

Not only is it important that all organisations are working towards decarbonising their operations, but it’s also crucial that there is cross-industry collaboration to innovate the necessary solutions and technologies to reach net zero. Across our supply chains we work with over 3,000 small, medium enterprises (SMEs) and so we also see ourselves playing an important role in helping with their emissions too, collaborating with them and sharing our own learnings to decarbonise the transport and infrastructure sectors. 

Costain’s whole systems approach means that we consider challenges, such as fleet decarbonisation, from all angles to develop the best solutions. Costain is in a particularly strong position to help lead the way in decarbonising transport infrastructure, as not only is it important for us as a business, but also for our customers who increasingly value our approach to achieving clean mobility and the knowledge and capabilities                     we provide. 

The projects we work on also span a range of sectors, sizes and locations across the UK and that experience helps us when considering the decarbonisation blueprint for our customers and allows us to take a number of those lessons into our own operations. 

Q: Although Costain has a relatively large company car fleet of around 2000 vehicles, is this relatively simple to transition to EVs and achieve the zero emission by 2030 target?

We introduced a car fleet transition timeline that works towards our commitment for all our operations, including our supply chain, being net zero carbon by 2035. We are doing particularly well with decarbonising corporate fleets and as of last year, 99% of the cars delivered to Costain staff were ultra-low or low emissions vehicles (ULEVs and LEVs). However, the challenge for us remains around the net zero alternatives for remote sites with limited charging infrastructure, and for heavier vehicles where the technology is still in infancy. To mitigate our impact in these circumstances, we work closely with fleet suppliers to understand the options available, which we consider on a project-by-project basis. 

An example of one of the ways we are committed to decarbonising transport operations in particular is our membership in the climate group EV100 – a global initiative to switch all owned and contracted fleet vehicles and installing infrastructure for employees by 2030. 

Q: Costain operates large numbers of commercial vehicles, specialist vehicles and plant provided on a project specific basis by contract hire companies. Are you able to work with those providers and benefit from new, low emission technologies?

We work closely with all our suppliers so that we stay on the front-foot of changes in the market and are able to partner with them on our operations to test new, low emissions technologies. 

We see the relationship we have with contract hire companies as collaborative – for example we recently undertook a pilot project with Enterprise Flex E-Rent to test the use of electric vans on major project sites.  The programme tested the effectiveness of electric vehicles used in construction, with EV vans trialled across a range of different teams and workplace scenarios including at project sites for the Preston Western Distributor Road scheme in Lancashire, the A30 Chiverton to Carland Cross project near Truro in Cornwall, and the A12 widening scheme near Chelmsford in Essex.  

The pilot demonstrated how EV vans can be an effective option for many journeys required on major infrastructure projects and by adopting a more flexible approach, we can meet tight budgetary requirements while supporting decarbonisation.

Q: How would you advise a fleet operator with demanding operational needs in remote and difficult to access sites and with a lack of low emission vehicles that meet those needs, to approach the requirement to reduce emissions?

The first consideration we always bear in mind is to approach these challenges as part of the client’s wider operations – not just the fleet but also their site requirements, current infrastructure and energy inputs. When advising clients with heavy operational needs and potentially difficult access to sites – there are a number of tech solutions available to help. For example, mobile battery technology has been incredibly effective in helping to power remote sites where current battery electric vehicle technology could be a viable option. The key is approaching the challenge from all angles, at Costain we bring together a range of experts when thinking of a solution, from fleet experts to energy specialists.  

Interim solutions can also be an effective alternative if clients are unable to access final technologies straight away. Using our work with Swindon Borough Council as an example, one of the options we proposed was to consider procuring a secure supply of Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (HVO) to power their current fleet of refuse vehicles as an interim option before fully committing to battery technologies – giving them more time for the technology to develop and become more economically viable before fully transitioning by the end of 2030. 

Q: Could you summarise how Costain  is now engaging with other organisations to develop their road maps to decarbonisation?

Using a whole-systems approach, we help clients establish a clear roadmap defining transitional milestones and the economic pathway to deliver zero emission fleets. Our programme for achieving this is typically built into four distinct stages:

At the outset it is important to have a thorough understanding of a client’s operational utilisation, maintenance and procurement lifecycles. We aim to spend several days at a client’s site or depot to fully understand the current fleet, its supporting infrastructure and how this could be built upon for the future. Quantitative and qualitative data collection is also gathered from key stakeholders to clearly understand the needs of the council’s fleet operators, maintainers and end users. Using this, we will then define the Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) technology options that best match the operational requirements, 

Based on findings from stage one, we then undertake detailed analysis of the client’s site to understand the potential of the current infrastructure and what upgrades are needed to support future fleets. Doing this allows us to identify the best and most cost-effective charging/ fuelling options to match the council’s operational needs. Further factors include considering the requirement for energy monitoring and charging management software and if these could be integrated within the existing fleet software.

Using our total cost of ownership modelling tool, we then evaluate the economic viability of the identified transition options across the timeframe. This often also includes a qualitative discussion of potential financial and business models within the automotive and related infrastructure sectors – examples include Mobility and Charging As A Service. We also review potential funding sources available through UK, national and regional bodies, as well as any innovation funding to support trials of new technology.

At this stage a strategy has been produced and supported by a clear roadmap taking all insights from stages 1, 2 and 3. This will enable organisations to transition safely and economically to a zero emissions fleet within the prescribed timeframe. Our recommendations also cover growth/reduction scenarios for vehicles and infrastructure, financial considerations, roll-out programmes, milestones and procurement strategies. 

Q: Using Swindon Borough Council as an example, how do you advise operators of diverse fleets on vehicle alternatives and charging infrastructure and what are the other key first steps?

The two key questions we ask clients at the start of any decarbonisation project are: how has the fleet operated to date – which takes into account whether there is a centralised depot, are all vehicles returned to a central location at night and what are the current health and safety provisions? And secondly, what do they hope it looks like in the future? Combined, the feedback from these questions gives us a good indication of the current challenges and opportunities, as well as what the roadmap to decarbonisation needs to consider. For example, during our work with Swindon Borough Council, understanding the current infrastructure compared to its net zero ambitions meant we were able to establish a clear roadmap with available power provision for the central depot sitting at the heart of the plan. This defined transitional milestones across the timeframe, as well as phased infrastructure development and the economic pathway to deliver a zero emissions fleet. 

With that in mind, we can then help the client to define the Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) technology options that best matched the council’s operational requirements. Battery and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle technology were considered, as well as interim technologies such as retrofitting vehicles and biofuels. Understanding their future ambitions mean that we are able to advise on technologies already available, alongside any expected to emerge within the transitional timeframe. 

Q: During those primary planning stages, how do you manage the complex task of engaging with all stake holder departments to establish a workable strategy that will meet their various needs?

Because we are approaching any project from a range of angles, we are looking at not only the right low carbon alternative for fleet operations but also the current infrastructure, whether there is enough energy powering the site and also the health and safety matters – particularly with the large-scale volumes of lithium batteries. Therefore, when developing a strategy and a solution for our clients, we see it as crucial to bring together all relevant stakeholders from the outset and understand the work as part of a shared vision. 

Using our work with Swindon Borough Council as an example, we were liaising with 12 different stakeholders across the organisation, from fleet managers, finance and procurement and health and safety teams. Decarbonising fleets impacts a number of business units and often to support electric vehicles, it fundamentally changes the whole way a depot operates. For example, it is important to engage safety teams and potentially the local fire service to consider the mitigants required to manage the risk of thermal runaways and so access to sufficient water becomes necessary at a depot location. 

Q: How should operators best manage and plan for the typically long lead times associated with acquiring EVs?

Planning truly is key and although 2030 still seems a way off, with the current supply issues surrounding many electric vehicles, fleet managers should be considering their transition plans now. As part of the blueprints we develop for clients, we advise on a number of steps managers can take to help ease procurement issues. These include considering whether there are other partners to collaborate with to increase their procurement power and potentially driving costs down. In the case of local councils, we often help start a dialogue with other local authorities on their plans to see if there is a way of coming together and improve the economies of scale. We also encourage clients to work closely with their suppliers and regularly check in on their timelines and ensure that the technology they purchase now isn’t outdated by the time the ordered vehicles reach them. 

Q: On the road to 2030, how do you see EV and other technology developing to help decarbonising all fleet operations?

We are always advising clients on the technology already available to them, alongside any expected to emerge within their transitional timeline – this makes it incredibly important that we are in a constant dialogue with the producers of these technologies to understand what it is coming down the track. However, it also means that we are always testing new developments ourselves as a business to try and stay at the forefront of bringing these technologies to the mainstream. For example, last year we were part of a consortium alongside Siemens Mobility and the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight to demonstrate that a nationwide Electric Road System (ERS) will likely be the fastest and most efficient way to decarbonise the UK’s freight sector. 

In terms of developments, we hope for in the near future, we need to see improvements for larger/ heavier vehicles, and in our charging infrastructure. Decarbonising large municipal vehicles is very much in its infancy and so whether it’s battery electric, hydrogen fuel cells or a mix of both – we will need to see developments in those technologies in order to help fleet operations fully decarbonise. Smarter charging facilities will also be critical infrastructure for the future, which will need to be enabled by more sophisticated energy systems. It is the hope that these systems will help flex charging around any potential grid capacity constraints, particularly at peak times, whilst still leaving us with the required power for our vehicles when we need it. 

It is not just technological developments however, that are impacting the pace of change. Cost is also a major barrier to many public sector organisations and so as more technologies come to market, it is the hope that the cost for zero emissions vehicles and related infrastructure requirements as well as related delivery timeframes will reduce.

This article featured in Issue 6 of Essential Fleet Manager – read the issue here

Essential Fleet Manager Issue 6 (2023)



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