9 steps to going electric

How does a local authority plan and execute an electric vehicle transition? We explore the process with CIWM president Trevor Nicoll, head of the Greater Cambridge Shared Waste Service, which has started the journey to go electric

An ever increasing number of local authorities are exploring the potential for transitioning their refuse collection vehicle (RCV) fleets from diesel to electric, or hydrogen-powered alternatives, as they seek to reduce carbon and other emissions.

Moving to vehicles that run on alternative sources of power isn’t simply a matter of trading in old models for new, however; other things must be addressed, too – from infrastructure and budgeting, to operative training and resident awareness.

One of the local authority services to have started on the electric vehicle path is Greater Cambridge Shared Waste Service – a strategic partnership between Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council – which is led by CIWM president Trevor Nicoll. He shares his experience, and offers advice on preparing for the transition to electric vehicles and the processes involved.

Step 1: The decision: why go electric?

Our push to go electric stems from the decision by both Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire District councils to declare a climate emergency. We needed to look at ways of reducing our carbon emissions, because our waste vehicles are among the council’s largest CO2 emitters.

In South Cambridgeshire, 67 per cent of the district council’s total emissions are through waste vehicles. It’s a lower proportion for Cambridge City Council, because it has more urban facilities that emit carbon, but it’s still a sizeable proportion of overall emissions. The move to electric vehicles (EVs) will cut our emissions significantly.

We’ve recently ordered our first electric RCV – a Dennis Eagle model (see panel for technical specifications) – but we are also looking at Faun Zoeller hydrogen-powered vehicles as another low-carbon alternative. Ultimately, we may decide to get a mix of vehicle types, because it is important to get the right vehicle for a particular job.

Step 2: Calculating the full life cost

It is important when looking at EV technology to work out full life costs of the vehicle. We calculated our costs based on an eight-year period, which is our average vehicle lifespan. The capital outlay of the vehicle – which costs just under £400,000 – is considerably higher than a conventional diesel RCV, but taking into account the energy and servicing costs over an eight-year life-cycle, we believe the cost will be the same at the very least; it could be cheaper.

Effectively, we are simply transferring costs – adding to capital costs, but making a saving on operational costs. Over time, we expect the capital cost of EVs to fall as the cost of batteries reduces and economies of scale kick in. In terms of operational cost and carbon, we are moving away from a refuse fleet that typically uses around 50,000 litres of diesel a month, costing around £55,000-£60,000.

We also believe electric vehicles will last longer, because there are fewer moving parts that might need replacing. We may be able to depreciate the cost of vehicles over a longer period of time than our current eight-year cycle, making EVs an even more cost-effective option.

Step 3: Changing over the fleet

We have around 55 refuse vehicles in our fleet, and aim to replace them all with EVs on a rolling basis. Initially, however, we have bought one electric RCV, and will use our experience with that to help inform our decision on future requirements, assessing how well it works and meets our service needs.

Over the next replacement cycle, we hope to move to a completely electric fleet, or a decarbonised fleet including hydrogen-powered vehicles. This should be achieved by 2028 at the latest. It covers not only RCVs but also a large number of street sweepers, vans and pick-up vehicles.

Step 4: Energy infrastructure

It is critical to explore decisions about charging infrastructure and ensure there is sufficient capacity in place – or resources to procure it – before you commit to purchasing electric RCVs. This is likely to incur more upfront costs, so must be part of the full life-cost calculations for the transition.

We intend to be self-sufficient in energy to power the EVs, installing renewable power rather than taking power from the grid. We’ve done the analysis and are working with a partner to deliver our solution – a photovoltaic (PV) solar farm next to our depot. Our plan is to scale it up as our fleet expands, with battery storage too, so we can power all our EVs by clean, sustainable and cheap green electricity.

It’s vitally important to look at the whole system, and to be aware of – and address – possible issues surrounding pressure on the local grid from an expanded electric fleet.

Step 5: Choosing the vehicle

We purchased our initial electric RCV through a vehicle framework we have with Dennis-Eagle. The body side of it – the back-end – is basically a standard vehicle, so it’s one that we know and have used, and with which we are familiar. We already have some confidence in the vehicle, and the framework allowed us to act quickly.

Looking ahead, we will have to develop a new framework that allows us to have greater flexibility over different models of EVs as more come on the market. We’ve been looking at what’s available and, at the moment, the choice is quite limited. There are a small number of players, and we’re trying to work closely with them to assess what they are providing and how they are delivering it.

In addition, we are speaking with Faun Zoeller about the opportunities of using hydrogen power for our more high-mileage vehicles, and whether this may be a better approach for some of our requirements.

I would recommend testing the market to get the right vehicle. It’s really important to understand what is available and what it can offer before you start a procurement process. That means good research, conversations with manufacturers and suppliers, visits to see the equipment, and establishing exactly what you are seeking to achieve. This also means understanding the capabilities and requirements of your existing fleet, and its future needs. It’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach.

Step 6: The tendering process

When local authorities decide to buy these vehicles, it is important that they are very clear what their objectives are in the tendering process. The specification from the traditional RCV tendering process may have to change radically, with a focus on mileage or working time, which will dictate battery capacity.

Often, the tendering process is based on the capital cost of the vehicle, but – going forward – we’re going to have to be smarter, and build in the whole-life cost of the vehicle, including fuel. That fundamentally changes the procurement and pricing specification, and how you evaluate that when moving to a whole-life cost model.

Step 7: Integrating the vehicle into the fleet

Once you’ve made that commitment to switch to EVs, you must have a process to integrate the vehicle into your fleet. It may have different characteristics or drive very differently, for example, so it’s important the drivers and crew get the right training, to get the most out of the new type of vehicles. Some investment will be needed to train and upskill drivers and mechanics – and it is important to get staff onboard with the change, so they can see the benefits this new technology can bring.

Initially, this will mean working in partnership with suppliers and manufacturers, particularly in the early days, to make sure everybody gets the most out of that vehicle.

Step 8: Creating a circular solution

The transition to electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles can be part of a powerful circular story. We’re hoping to use PV, but other councils that have energy-from-waste facilities are trying to close the circle by making sure they use energy from these resources to power their vehicles. That’s a good example of a closed-loop process – and a positive illustration of a circular solution that can be communicated to residents and others.

Whatever the decision or route into low-carbon vehicles, it should be a holistic, joined-up process. It is useful to look at working with neighbouring authorities to see how energy resources can be shared, and to explore synergies.

For example, this may tie in neatly with the resources and waste strategy, where separate weekly waste-food collections are likely to happen. There may be a greater need for anaerobic digestion, which could then be used to power vehicles.

It’s about looking for opportunities for closed-loop processes, to use materials and resources to power our vehicles. This could be a good opportunity for individual authorities, or councils working collectively, to explore such circular solutions.

Step 9: Starting up

Even if you are not yet ready to take the plunge on electric RCVs, it’s important to start investigating this technology as soon as possible. This is the direction of travel for the industry, so it’s really important to start investigating the options and talking to people – manufacturers, suppliers and industry colleagues – about it.

I would advise readers to look out for CIWM events and other forums in which CIWM participates, to see what other people are doing, and to share their experiences. It’s about creating a roadmap for where you intend to go, even if the journey hasn’t started yet.

This article featured in the March/April issue of Circular.

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