Charging up for an electric ride

The low carbon benefits of electric vehicles are filtering into the waste sector, where a number of models are available. Mike Gerber looks at what's out there

Mention electric vehicles to 'dieselheads' and they might look at you as if you were some weirdo out of The Twilight Zone - perhaps that 1962 episode written by Ray Bradbury, 'I Sing the Body Electric'. Increasingly though, eco-conscious fleet managers are switching on to the realisation that electric vehicles (EVs) are ultra-green and quiet, cheap to run, tax free, low maintenance, and battery development is dramatically improving range and performance.

"The vehicles are zero emission at the point of use," says Dan Jenkins, spokesperson for Smith Electric Vehicles. "Even when taking into account the carbon emissions associated with power generation, each vehicle provides a CO2 saving of 40-50%." The congested city centres where Smith vehicles operate are the places with the worst transport pollution. In central Huddersfield, Kirklees Council has since January been trialling a Smith Edison van used in part to empty 25 split litter/recycling bins. The battery is re-charged using electricity generated at the town's energy-from-waste plant.

The 3.5t Edison top speed is 50mph. Acceleration from 0-30mph faster is than a comparable diesel vehicle. Load space is identical to the equivalent diesel vehicle. A payload of up to 1,220kg is, Jenkins concedes, slightly reduced compared with a diesel "but still meets or exceeds all customers' requirements for waste and recycling operations".

Fully charged, the Edison's range is up to 100 miles. "The critical step in the development of second generation EVs has been advances in energy storage through use of lithium ion batteries," explains Jenkins. "Smith utilises a lithium ion iron phosphate chemistry which is extremely robust, stable and delivers superb energy density - ie the amount of energy per kg of battery."

Electric vehicles are incredibly energy efficient, he points out - well over 90% efficient for the motors Smith now uses. "By contrast the internal combustion engine is highly inefficient - up to three-quarters of the energy in your fuel tank will never make it to the wheels," Jenkins explains.

And although the Smith Edison is more than twice the capital cost of the equivalent diesel van, its running costs, Jenkins says, are substantially lower - less than £4 for a full battery charge. "The ticket price is artificially high because the electric van industry as a whole is producing hundreds of vehicles a year. If we can deliver decent volume into our supply chain - say 3,000 units per annum, we can reduce the cost of our vehicles by up to 40%."

To accelerate take-up of electric vans, Smith is urging the Government to roll out the very limited subsidy programme it has engendered for public sector procurement, while also offering incentives to the private sector.

Capital gains
The London Mayor's office is championing electric vehicles. It published a plan in May which envisages 1,000 EVs in the Greater London Authority (GLA) group fleet by 2015, while the GLA will strive to encourage increased uptake among GLA suppliers, London boroughs and elsewhere in the public sector. Also planned are 25,000 street charging points across the capital, although this will help electric cars, not commercial vehicles as the power requirement is higher for the larger battery.

But technical innovations are pushing the commercial EV "way ahead of the electric car" asserts Catherine Hutt, marketing & sales co-ordinator at Modec. She points out: "The commercial EV is ahead of the game because it suits the application already - ie, the range is the same from day-to-day, thus overcoming range anxiety. The vehicle returns to the depot at night, thus overcoming infrastructure/recharging issues, and the premium cost can be justified thanks to adding commercial value to the business who operate a Modec fleet."

Modec offers two battery options: lithium iron phosphate with a 60 mile range, and the 100 mile range 'Zebra' sodium nickel chloride. "Battery technology will evolve which is why we designed Modec to be future proof - the battery can be exchanged in less than 20 minutes which allows 24-7 operation of easy battery upgrades," says Hutt. Maximum payload is two tonnes and top speed 50mph. Each Modec saves between 9-12 tonnes of CO2 per year, depending on the vehicle it replaces.

Tipped for success
Customers include Tesco, M&S, FedEx, UPS, but, as Hutt points out, the new Modec tipper EV was launched at the June Futuresource show "after a long-term trial with a high profile player in the waste collection industry. This vehicle has been designed to limit any operational compromise, compared to a combustion engine vehicle".

Although there is a premium cost associated with this new technology, in time Hutt foresees that this cost will fall but adds that many more EVs are needed on the road before this becomes a reality. According to Bradshaw Electric Vehicles' spokesperson Ray Richardson, EVs have seen wide use in many sectors, including waste management.

"We have pedestrian-controlled vehicles being used in kerbside collection. Our tow tractors are used to move 1,100-litre wheelie bins and small bins on trailers. Our burden carrier vehicles fitted with cage bodies are used to collect bagged waste in parks and garden and pedestrian areas.

"Our sales team match the requirements of the local authority to the best vehicle for the environment and application. This means we do not have typical examples - each one is almost bespoke to the chain of waste collection. Our vehicles can fit into the waste collection and sorting process at many levels from the waste bin through to the disposal areas." He adds that the movement away from DC motors to AC has meant better efficiencies from batteries and more control of the motor using microprocessor controllers.

Heavy duty hybrids
Renault and Volvo are experimenting with prototype diesel-electric hybrid RCVs for heavy duty waste collection work, operating only off the batteries at the lower speeds required during rounds, with drastic reductions in noise and CO2 emissions. Until such vehicles become commercially viable, fleet operators can buy into the benefits of electric-power for RCV work by equipping their trucks with the Geesink Norba plug-in. It is a battery system, new to the UK but well proven in operation in Sweden, that enables electric operation of the tailgate and lifter.

LAWR has learned of new developments from trials in Scotland in which the Plug-in has been used with a Geesink Norba RL200 17.5m3 body and L200 trade bin lift on a Mercedes Econic chassis. "The plug-in electric vehicle has been given three-day trials on rounds by two local authorities in Scotland - Edinburgh City and West Lothian," says Geesink Norba's spokesperson Simon Newsam. "Between them they found fuel savings of around 40% in comparison with the conventional vehicles doing the same rounds."

Although plug-in vehicles cost £49k more, Newsam argues that the fuel savings should always considerably outweigh this over the typical lifetime usage of the vehicle. In Sweden, plug-in RCVs have cut CO2 emissions by up to 20%, but Norba is not yet ready, says Newsam, to quantify the emissions savings under UK-operating conditions. "What we will say is, the results we've received so far have actually exceeded our expectations."

Where people get bogged down, he says, is over how the electricity is generated in the first place. "The point is, that's changing - some electricity is generated without emissions, whether it's nuclear or we're increasingly seeing wind power of solar power.

And there's nothing to stop people, if they have a fleet of these vehicles, from fitting their own solar generators or wind turbines, rather than pay for mains electricity. Even if you include the emissions from electricity generated from coal-fired stations, it's still a lot less than the emissions from a diesel engine."

Mike Gerber is a freelance journalist

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