© Oslo Climate Agency

Quiet, clean and green: discover Oslo’s zero-emissions construction site

Oslo is a city undergoing a facelift. The Norwegian capital’s mid-century boulevards and squares are being brought into the modern world in a more people-friendly way. One of the many procedures in this makeover is Olav V street, just a few paces from the city hall.

Passers-by might huff and tut at the inconvenience of yet another construction site, but this one is special – it’s zero emissions. A first of its kind in the world, all the machinery – diggers, excavators and loaders – are electric. And according to Philip Mortensen, the Senior Adviser at Oslo’s Climate Agency, bystanders notice the reduction in ambient noise.

“It’s obvious that it’s quieter and it’s less polluted,” he says. His colleague from the Central Procurement Department, Guro Wensaas, notes that some coffee shops on Olav V Street even left their doors open.

A quieter – and safer – workplace

The pair are part of the team that brought this unique zero-emission construction site, or Zemcons, into being. Mortensen developed the policy framework for the construction site and Wensaas led the development of standard requirements for construction work on Oslo’s Zemcons.

The Olav V Street project serves as the demonstration project in the Zemcons group of the EU-funded Big Buyers Initiative (BBI) and has provided much valuable information about the practicalities of ‘plug-in’ public works. The group also hosts Amsterdam, Brussels Mobility, Budapest, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Trondheim and Lisbon.

For Mortensen, it’s clear that businesses in the surrounding area aren’t best pleased with a construction site on their doorstep, even a quiet one. But the workers and machinery operators on the site gave priceless feedback. “They report that the construction site is a quieter – it makes it a safer place to work. It’s easier to communicate between the workers,” says Mortensen. What’s more, the workers are happy to be on such an historic site.

You vacuum in your home with a cable attached to the vacuum cleaner, so there’s no reason why you can’t do the digging with a cable, too.
— Philip Mortensen

“The fact that the project is a Zemcons project is something that motivates the workers,” Mortensen says. “The people operating the machines think it’s a fun and interesting experience to have this kind of equipment. They feel like they’re taking part in a transition.”

Lessons learned, knowledge shared

The project, which is turning the street in this office-dense part of the city into a car-free, people-friendly plaza, is due to wrap up early next year. The team, however, hope this won’t be the last Zemcons site in the world and hope their experience will come in handy for other cities in Europe.

Notably, says Mortensen, the project revealed that there are pre-requisites cities should put in place before embarking on such an ambitious project. “You need to do a lot of work on the ground if you want to do a demonstration project in this early stage,” he says. Looking at the electricity grid to see if there is potential supply for the site’s machines is crucial, as is identifying a supplier for the machines themselves.

Each machine comes with its quirks, too – Mortensen describes machines that burned out charging modules due to an inconsistent electricity supply, and diggers that have limited mobility due to the position of the cable, much like household items that have to be plugged in. “But”, he adds, “you vacuum in your home with a cable attached to the vacuum cleaner, so there’s no reason why you can’t do the digging with a cable, too.”

These issues can be shared with the six other cities in the BBI group, but for Wensaas, the real benefit of the group comes in sending a signal to the market. “We might go forward and do this pilot and try new requirements and develop a small market for zero-emissions machinery, but alone we are not enough to signal to the industry to start serial production,” she says. “And through that, lower the price for us and others.”

And others intend to follow. In the BBI group alone, most plan to turn their construction sites into Zemcons within the next 10 years. This is not to say there aren’t potential challenges for the implementation of zero-emission construction sites. “Oslo has quite a developed electricity grid,” says Mortensen. “This might not be the case for other cities.” Detailed planning of the demonstration site is required, including forward thinking for future developments to use the large amount of electricity used on the construction site. Mortensen even suggests that partial Zemcons could be a solution on sites where a large amount of electricity afterwards would be redundant.

Better for society

In Oslo, the scope for new Zemcons is growing. Romeo Apetrei-Thomassen, Quality, Environmental and Discipline Manager at the City of Oslo, explains that two sections of the municipality are set to merge, bringing their total property portfolio to over 2.5 million metres squared. This means that there will be no stopping the momentum of Zemcons. “We need to tell the market that this is coming. The faster you change your profile, the better it’s going to be for society,” he says.

Soon, Olav V Street will be full of trees and people enjoying the outdoors. But unlike many other works to transform streets into places for people, the process for this site has been clean, green, quiet and has laid down the groundwork for more cities to consider their own zero-emissions construction sites.

ICLEI and Eurocities are currently running the initiative on behalf of the European Commission, DG Internal Market, Industry Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG GROW).

For more information and results from the Big Buyers Initiative, visit the project’s website. The group’s work will continue under a new project called the Big Buyers for Climate and Environment. Stay tuned for updates on this exciting new opportunity.