UPS to trial electric vehicle ‘smart grid’ in London

EXCLUSIVE: Delivery firm UPS is moving onto the "next stage" of the electric vehicle (EV) deployment challenge to trial decentralised power generation and onsite storage systems at its London operating base.

Speaking to edie at the Economist Sustainability Summit in London last week, UPS’s director of sustainability for Europe Peter Harris revealed that the firm is partnering with distribution network operator UK Power Networks to trial new smart grid technology in London as part of a two-year testing project.

UPS will deploy a “small” local battery storage system at its Kentish Town base, which will be used to systematically charge the firm’s fleet of EVs that are in operation around the city. Currently, UPS operates around 50 EV trucks in London, but as part of the trial the fleet will be increased to 72.

“If you have a lot of EVs simultaneously in the same building that need recharging, then getting that power into the building takes you into uncharted territories. There are a number of ways around this problem,” Harris said.

“The first way that we took was the simple way where we paid for additional capacity from the network operator. We don’t really want to be doing that again because it is extremely expensive. It’s not the way forward for fleet electrification but what can be is a smart grid, which is what we are now in the process of starting to deploy.”

The company had spent more than £600,000 on infrastructure upgrades to be able to charge multiple EVs at the same time. However, charging during times when the facility’s sorting systems were operating made simultaneous charging unfeasible due to insufficient grid capacity.

The trials will begin next month with the assistance of the Cross River Partnership – central London’s largest public-private partnership. The charging system will be largely monitored by a new computer system that factors other energy uses from the building, the deployment time of the vehicles and how charged they already are to streamline the process and save on electricity use.

Harris claimed that, if successful, the smart grid could negate the need to buy anymore conventional operates for the building. Crucially, the introduction of at least 20 more EVs will test the smart grid’s ability to work beyond the current grid power limit for the building, which stands at 63 vehicles.

Battery re-use

The capacity of the local energy storage system will be equivalent to that of two to three trucks, with Harris stating the costs to install more wouldn’t be beneficial for the trail. However, UPS feels that the potential for this technology is “enormous” and Harris has already envisioned a future where old batteries from the EV trucks are reused to boost storage capacity.

“If this works the potential is there for this to be deployed in other buildings in our network and disseminated more widely in the industry,” Harris added. “The potential is enormous.

“The next step beyond that is thinking about combining decentralised power generation and the onsite storage aspect to be ex-vehicle batteries. Our oldest EVs are eight years old and we’re approaching the point where we’ll have batteries that are near the end of their usual vehicle life. But that doesn’t mean to say that it is a useless asset anymore, they could become that onsite storage.”

The two-year trial will attempt to provide the framework to implement this idea, although Harris stressed that it would be in the “most cost effective” manner. UPS also plans to disseminate the results of the trial to the wider sector.

Rolling Laboratory

UPS’s original foray into EV and its infrastructure began around 10 years ago, under the “Rolling Laboratory” initiative. Upwards of $750m was invested by the end of 2016 in alternative fuel and advanced technology fuelling stations globally, including hybrid-electric trucks.

Deploying more than 7,200 vehicles in the Rolling Laboratory, UPS has combined its alternatively-fuelled vehicles with the ORION system, which can see up to 30,000 delivery route optimisations each minute to save on fuel use and road miles.

Currently, around 12% of the conventionally-fuelled ground fleet is being replaced by these new fuel-mix vehicles. UPS is also using innovative bike hybrids to pedal around heavily-populated urban areas.

Last year, Harris and his chief sustainability officer, Rhonda Clark, told edie that the UK Government should create a “level playing field” by allowing the transport sector to create a better support system for vehicle electrification and enable more investment into biofuels.

Matt Mace

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