Do binmen dream of electric vehicles?

Electric vehicles have been touted as a technological solution to air pollution and the climate emergency, producing fewer fumes and forgoing fossil fuels. City of London was one of the first local authorities to trial electric vehicles in its waste services, with positive results

The city can be an exhausting place, and it’s easy to feel like you’re running on fumes. Literally. Air pollution contributes to around one in 16 deaths every year in London alone, and moves are being made to tackle the issue, with the Government bringing forward plans to phase out petrol and diesel cars to 2035 back in 2019.

Though the ban on petrol and diesel cars was not extended to Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGV), which include the refuse collection vehicles (RCVs), many local authorities are exploring the move from diesel to electric.

City of LondonThe City of London Corporation has been one of the more plugged-in authorities. Covering the Square Mile, the authority collects 5,100 tonnes of waste a year from households and has serious air quality issues.

“Air quality is a priority for the City of Corporation, some of our streets are the highest polluted streets in London,” says Vince Dignam, Business Performance and Transport Group Manager at City of London.

“So we wanted to do the right thing for public health.”

Eager to tackle air pollution it trialled a 26-tonne electric RCV from NRG (now ELECTRA) in May 2018 and hasn’t looked back since. The trial took place in Smithfield Market, where there were recorded air quality issues and it was easier to evaluate performance in a delimited area. And the results, especially the public and driver perception, were far better than expected.

“We thought we were going to have a lot of problems, to be honest,” admitted Mr Dignam. “We thought we’d have trouble with the driver buy-in, due to training and how the vehicle handled, but drivers loved it from day one due to less noise and no fumes. While they were going round the market, all the traders and public commented positively on how quiet the vehicle was, as all you could hear was the compactor.”

In terms of performance, the electric RCV shaped up admirably against a diesel comparator. To complete one round of Smithfield Market, lifting 200 bins and driving to the tip and back, took 40-45 per cent of the vehicle’s charge.

The success of the trial led the City of London Corporation to include a requirement to provide electric vehicles in the tender for its latest waste management contract, won by Veolia and started in 2019 with a commitment to phase-in electric vehicles from street sweepers to electric RCVs over three years. The electric RCVs are expected to be introduced towards the end of this year, as they were delayed by the coronavirus outbreak.

This article was taken from Issue 100

Of course an entire fleet of electric vehicles brings infrastructure considerations. Bringing together experts, the City of London Corporation worked out how much power and charging capabilities would be needed, and led to £100,000 spent on diverting power from one substation to the main waste depot, where the vehicles would be charged, and £250,000 to build a new substation to power the entire building.

Furthermore, capital investment costs of an electric RCV are projected to be in excess of £415,000, that is some 150 per cent more than a diesel equivalent at circa £165,000. With an operating life expectancy between 7-8 years, vehicle maintenance costs are projected to be lower due to the reduction of moving parts and less serviceable items. Battery technologies and efficiencies are somewhat of an unknown factor depending on what manufacturers you speak to, though the commitment to warranty periods of the batteries could help mitigate the financial risks.

Despite issues that need to be ironed out, Dignam is clear that the future of waste collection in the CIty of London is electric: “Our ambition is to have a full fleet of clean refuse vehicles. We are taking responsibility for the cleanliness of all our vehicles, encouraging the use of low and zero emission models with our partners.It complements the work we are doing to help City businesses cut back on vehicle deliveries and use more hybrid models.”

The City of London Corporation’s partnership with Veolia to deliver electric RCVs provides a shining example of how waste collection fleets can play their part in reducing air pollution. While there’s no silver bullet to the issue of air quality, they certainly provide a breath of fresh air.