With the government committed to banning diesel engines by 2040, James Richards finds out which viable alternatives can serve the waste sector.
A quiet revolution is taking place on Britain’s streets. The diesel-powered beasts that punctuate our early mornings with their distinctive growl are officially an endangered species. A new breed of environmentally friendly refuse collection vehicles (RCVs) are appearing, powered by electric batteries, low-emission fuels, or an innovative combination.
Car manufacturer Tesla has literally ‘led the charge’ in the consumer sector, normalising the sight of electric (e-mobility) vehicles on UK streets. The key driver for the waste industry, however, has been legislation. European Union efforts to improve air quality date back to the 1970s. However, it was the directives on ambient air quality (2008/50/EC), and on limiting heavy metals and hydrocarbons in ambient air (2004/107/EC) that set specific pollutant concentration thresholds.
… The race is on to find an economically viable alternative to diesel engines that can serve the waste sector.
Since then, to comply with these directives, low-emission zones (LEZs) – areas in which vehicles emitting a certain level of pollutants face a charge – are cropping up all over Europe. By one count, there are already 200 LEZs in continental towns and cities. London mayor Sadiq Khan has pushed further, through the imposition of an ultra-low emissions zone, expected to come into force in April 2019, which sets even tighter limits for vehicles.
Critically, the government has committed to banning diesel engines by 2040, and is under pressure to bring this forward to 2032. Consequently, the race is on to find an economically viable alternative to diesel engines that can serve the waste sector.
Electric RCVs come in different forms, but the most common are those entirely powered by batteries (usually lithium-ion), and those with a dual power source, such as a diesel engine combined with an electrified compactor.
David Simpson, head of fleet and plant at FCC Environment, explains some of the benefits of full-electric models to Circular. ‘Electric vehicles do not release any emissions into the atmosphere when working, and are very silent, which means healthier cities, a cleaner environment and less nuisance for inhabitants. Electric vehicles are also much more energy-efficient.’
Of course, the absence of emissions means that operators don’t get charged to enter LEZs.
Also, the silence of such machines is better for drivers and crews, and better for residents, extending the use envelope deeper into the night. This means collections can take place long before the morning rush-hour, which is much more efficient and helps to tackle urban congestion.
Simpson outlines some of the other benefits: ‘Maintenance costs are lower [because of a lack of moving parts] and vehicle lifespan is substantially longer than diesel-powered machines. The RCV is particularly suited to electric power because collection vehicles travel at low speeds, brake often and can, therefore, take advantage of regenerative braking.’ This is the process by which electricity is recycled from a vehicle’s brakes back to the battery.
Incredibly, FCC’s first electric waste vehicle entered service in Spain in 1974. Now, the company is developing a fully electric, three-axle side-loading truck, or ‘industrial platform’. Simpson told Circular it had been ‘conceived specifically for urban service vehicles, because it is extremely energy efficient. It’s also very versatile, being suitable for all kind of applications, and power and energy requirements’.
According to FCC, the vehicle uses 50 per cent less energy compared with a conventional (compressed natural gas) engine. Moreover, every part of the truck is recyclable, which, in Simpson’s words, ‘helps the transition to a circular economy’. In November, Dennis Eagle showcased its new all-electric RVC, the 26-tonne eCollect, at the Polytech trade show in France.
Managing director Kevin Else confirmed the unit will go into production in late 2019, after undertaking trials in Europe. A key business objective, he says, was to ease the learning curve for existing customers of its diesel vehicles. ‘We set out to provide operators with a viable zero-emissions alternative to their diesel RCVs, and the best way to do that was to match their preferred vehicles like-for-like. To help ensure the vehicle’s reliability, we decided to make minimal design changes.’
The RCV is particularly suited to electric power because collection vehicles travel at low speeds, brake often and can take advantage of regenerative braking
Repower to the people
Lancashire-based Electra appears to have leapt to the front of the pack in the race to make all-electric RVC fleets. The company works with chassis manufacturers to repower truck bodies for fully electric use. Electra now has all-electric RCVs based on Mercedes, Dennis Eagle and Isuzu chassis, and is building a 26-tonne Dennis Elite in narrow-width and standard variations.
Russell Markstein, commercial director of Electra, says: ‘The chassis manufacturers are two or three years behind, and aren’t ready for our country’s needs yet. They’re focusing on commercial trucks and, therefore, are not at the forefront of the municipal market.’ However, collaboration has been crucial in the development process.
‘The chassis manufacturers have given us access to their CAN bus systems [electric protocols that control electric components], which allows us to tap into the vehicle. We are working closely with Mercedes, which is selling us the “glider” chassis [bodies without engines] that we convert.’
According to Markstein, the City of London is set to receive seven fully electric Electra vehicles based on the Dennis Elite body, which will become the first all-electric fleet in the country. In Sheffield, Veolia will soon deploy two all-electric RCVs, charged by power derived from the waste they have collected. The project involves two 26-tonne RCVs converted from diesel to electric power. Another two vehicles are to be tested in Westminster, making this one of the larger applications of repowered electric vehicles in the UK.
Gary Clark, fleet director, says: ‘Transitioning 50 per cent of all diesel trucks, vans and cars in our sector to electric would save 400,000 tonnes of carbon emissions, improving air quality as well as contributing to long-term climate goals. This is what we should be collectively aiming towards over the next few years.’
In its yearly results in June 2018, waste management company Biffa also hinted it would soon be deploying its first fully electric refuse collection vehicle.
View from the manufacturers
As well as collaborating with individual companies, chassis manufacturers are pressing forward with a commitment to e-mobility, mainly through investment in fully electrified goods distribution trucks.
For Phil Moon, marketing manager at DAF Trucks UK, the latter will serve as a test-bed. ‘Although we believe electric vehicles will perform an increasingly important role in road transport, we are looking mostly at distribution solutions. We’re in the field trial stage, and we want to keep the trials as focused as we can on the bit that we provide, which is the driveline,’ he says.
Volvo is working with Swedish waste management company Renova on a fully electric RCV, while, like DAF, pressing ahead with its electric distribution trucks. Another Swedish make, Scania, has released several fully electric distribution trucks, and has worked with Renova on a hydrogen fuel cell-powered RCV. Iveco has developed a range of all-electric vans at the lighter end of the market, but has focused its efforts more on natural gas.
Mercedes, manufacturer of the ubiquitous ‘Econic,’ is also pursuing a two-pronged strategy, with electrified distribution trucks acting as prototypes for waste applications. Ten all-electric eActros distribution trucks are undergoing testing, while the all-electric light truck in the form of the Fuso eCanter is expected to go into serial production from 2020.
Jamie Fretwell, from Mercedes-Benz Trucks, says the company is developing an all-electric version of the Econic. ‘Based on the results and customer experience with the eActros, in a next step, Mercedes-Benz will be focused to develop the low-entry truck Econic in an electrified version.’
Barriers to e-mobility adoption
FCC’s David Simpson highlights that the major stumbling block to a swift transition to all-electric fleets here in the UK remains ‘affordability, infrastructure, and vehicle performance. Municipal contracts in the UK are cash-stretched,’ he says, ‘and putting the latest vehicle technology on the streets is a big up-front investment, so such a transition may take some time.’
DAF’s Nick Moon develops this theme: ‘The problem arises when you’re recharging many vehicles at the same site. There’s an awful lot of infrastructure involved that is expensive and challenging to put in.’
Russell Markstein, at Electra, agrees the National Grid, which is already close to its supply limits, might struggle to cope, but it depends on the geographical area.
‘Fortunately, the City of London has enough power. They will likely stagger their services to make sure not all the vehicles charge at the same time.’ While the model has, so far, proven to be well suited to the streets of London, Markstein admits the Electra may not be ideal for rural applications, involving longer journeys. Cost is also still a barrier to uptake, since the Electra is twice the price of the equivalent diesel.
Apart from trailblazers like Electra, most manufacturers anticipate it will take until the mid-2020s before we see all-electric fleets as a default across the country.
‘The fuel bill is much smaller, however,’ says Markstein. ‘We’ve costed this vehicle at £15 a day to run. For a local authority with a fuel bill of £25,000 a year, we believe these models will become cost neutral after seven years.’
That said, Dennis Eagle’s Kevin Else foresees an ongoing requirement for diesel vehicles. ‘The infrastructure needed to operate whole fleets of electric vehicles is not going to be in place for some time. The facts are, we’re still going to need diesel vehicles for the foreseeable future and Dennis Eagle will be selling them.’
Apart from trailblazers like Electra, most manufacturers anticipate it will take until the mid-2020s before we see all-electric fleets as a default across the country. Rather than sit back and wait, a number of manufacturers and waste management companies are opting to compromise.
‘When a vehicle requires high levels of power and energy to deliver its functions, it sometimes makes sense to install an ancillary combustion engine,’ explains Simpson. ‘This acts as a generator exclusively for recharging the batteries, especially when there is no chance of coming back to the depot for plugging in.’
Hybrids – best of both worlds?
FCC toured the UK last year with a four-axle electric RCV with a CNG engine, to promote the technology. In effect, hybrids can leave the depot fully charged, function solely from electric power while working within a city (or within a LEZ), and recharge their batteries using a generator en route to the facility.
A range of low-emissions alternatives are already available, offering immediate emission reductions without the high initial investment required by e-mobility. For example, Lewisham Council has used Mercedes Econics with diesel engines and electric tipper bodies since late 2017. Also, last year, DAF unveiled a hybrid diesel-electric vehicle, where the diesel engine can be switched off to allow the vehicle to operate across LEZs.
Beyond mechanical compromises, such as hybrid RCVs, there are already several alternative fuel sources, which are tried and tested across the industry (see panel, ‘Alternative fuels’). Liquefied and compressed natural gas are commonly used in commercial vehicles, and have the advantage of being cleaner than diesel. Mercedes, Scania, Iveco and DAF all now have gas fuel chassis options.
Hydrogen fuel cells are a proven technology, with UK-based Grundon being one provider to roll out a dual-fuel hydrogen/diesel RCV. Relatively new entrants to this group of fuels include hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) and gas to liquid (GTL), which have a key additional advantage: they can be mixed with diesel, and used in diesel engines without requiring modification.
For Moon, this could be a way to bridge the gap between diesel and electric.
‘The beauty of these “drop-in” fuels is they allow you to move quickly to reduce your environmental impact, while the development work goes on with electric.’
HVO and natural gas are not yet available in large quantities in the UK. But, as Moon suggests, where demand leads, supply will surely follow. If the government reduces the duty on HVO and GTL fuels, this could jump-start the sector.
‘These fuels cost around 5p extra per litre compared with diesel, so it would only require a small reduction. If you compare this with the potential environmental benefits, it could be a price worth paying.’
This interview was first published in the February 2019 issue of Circular magazine.