Electric wheels: A future without petrol for waste collection fleets?
With a government pledge to ban all new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, the use of electric alternatives is on the rise – and refuse collection vehicles could be changing too. Edward Perchard looks into the risks and benefits of turning electric for the UK’s fleets
Ah, the city: the sights, the smells, the smog. All around the world people are flocking to cities in their droves in search of jobs, homes and excitement. By 2030, 60 per cent of us will live in urban areas. But we’ll need to stock up on hankies.
According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution contributes to seven million premature deaths every year, a staggering one eighth of total global deaths. And rather than being some far-flung issue, it’s prevalent right here in the UK, with up to 40,000 deaths in this country associated with toxic air each year. 16 zones in the UK, including London, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow, are exceeding nitrogen dioxide limits, often due to road traffic, according to the European Commission.
The government is starting to take notice, especially in London, where Mayor Sadiq Khan is making it one of his top PR winners. In addition to recently introducing a ‘T-charge’ on older, more polluting cars, Khan wants to double the size of the capital’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ), which charges the most polluting cars, vans and motorbikes an extra £12.50 and buses, coaches and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) an extra £100 to drive through central London, on top of the congestion charge.
Oxford is looking to bring in the world’s first zero emission zone, and clean air zones are also being considered in Bristol, Edinburgh and Manchester, as well as other urban hubs up and down this green and pleasant land. And now, the government has pledged to ban all new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040; the days of diesel appear to be numbered. A similar reckoning could be on the horizon for the waste and recycling industry’s fleets, but not just because policy says so.
Dan Clarke, Fleet Electrification Lead at Ricardo Energy and Environment, suggests that the pull towards electric vehicles is just as convincing as the push away from conventional fleets. In the last few years, there have been great forward strides in technology to make electrification a more appealing proposition for business: charge time is going down, to the extent that rapid charging networks are proliferating across Europe; the driving range provided by electric batteries is growing; and capital costs are falling as technology gets cheaper.
These improvements mean that larger vehicles are getting in on the act: London got its first two fully-electric bus routes last year and three more are planned for this year. Huge manufacturers like Tesla and Mercedes-Benz are now developing HGVs. Of course, there are differences between other HGVs and refuse collection vehicles: RCVs start off empty and collect weight, rather than starting off full. Operators must make sure they don’t go over a certain weight and risk overexertion. RCVs also have the added complication of a technical operation going on at the back that needs powering: as well as driving, the vehicle has to be able to lift and tip bins, compact the loads and then tip the collected waste when it arrives at a depot.
Despite these complications, progress is now tangible. Geesinknorba, through a collaboration with Dutch electric vehicle specialist Emoss, launched what it says is the world’s first all-electric rear-loading RCV – the Li-On Power Pro – at the Future Fleet Forum in January.
Hybrid vehicles have been used on collections before, with the lifting, compacting and tipping powered by the electric element, but this is the first time, the company says, that the actual driving – the most energy-thirsty part of the operation – has been run on a battery. Advances in technology mean that the lead acetate batteries originally used in these vehicles can now be replaced by two lithium- ion battery packs, which are smaller and take up less space and weight. This, along with the loss of the heavy diesel engine, fuel tanks and the various liquids sloshing around inside them, means that the vehicles can go further and complete their waste collection rounds.
It’s early days for the Li-On Power Pro (pictured top right), which is currently being road tested in Spain. The vehicles are suited only to urban rounds at the moment, where depot-to-depot routes are much shorter (rural rounds often have to travel hundreds of miles in a day), but it’s a good start, especially as cities are the locations crying out for cleaner roads. The Li-On Power Pro doesn’t emit any CO2 or NOx gases, and the vehicle has already started selling to UK operators.
As well as a more consistent proximity to depots, Clarke also suggests that ongoing developments could help urban RCVs charge on the go. Electric buses can use ‘opportunity charging’ with small power points at bus stops to top up their batteries’ charge without the driver having to make a diversion, or even get out of their seat. The same could feasibly be used for collection vehicles, which would in turn allow for smaller batteries (not having to hold a day’s charge at once), and even lighter vehicles.
So how close are we to seeing electric vehicles whisking off our waste? Brown suggests that some councils may begin trials within the next year, but many may start by procuring an electric vehicle or two, to ensure that the transition is future-proofed. As noted earlier, technology is advancing at a relentless pace, so when is the right time to jump on board? Are those taking up the way of the battery now risking being lumbered with technology out of date within the year?
Clarke says it’s a reasonable concern to have (though argues that it’s the same for any purchase, from kettles to sorting lines), which is why he doesn’t recommend that any company or council moves before creating an electrification strategy. This means looking at data from existing routes and how fleets are used, modelling the operational and economic performance for both traditional and electrical vehicles, and looking at requirements like training, charging and infrastructure to decide if and when electrification should be pursued.
Though it is hard to put any figures to the claim, as different operators will have different costs for vehicles and their running based on contracts and efficiency, it seems that over time new technology could be a money saver. And companies could do even more to cut costs. A spokesperson for Geesinknorba says that there’s no special power supply for the vehicles; they are powered by the mains through an adaptor, and depots operating a large enough fleet could power their own vehicles through a turbine or similar on-site renewable energy source, removing the need to buy in electricity from elsewhere to fuel the fleet.
For all the drivers towards electrification, both push and pull, one of the strongest might be corporate social responsibility. Gone are the days of bin collection being the grubby business of old, getting waste out of sight and out of mind. Now, as shown by several rebrands among high-profile firms, the concept of a circular economy is taking hold, and waste management is becoming resource management. Residents want to know their council is responsible, and commercial customers want to know (and boast) that their rubbish is as eco-friendly as possible. Image could well be one of the key driving points for fleet electrification – providing the performance is up to scratch.
Transitioning to an electric waste collection would also help tackle another form of pollution, less publicised but, in the city, constant: noise. Theoretically, the only sound emitted from a completely electric RCV would be the material falling in and being compressed.
This brings both benefits and additional considerations. At present, most urban areas impose restrictions on when collections can take place. With less noise to worry about, local authorities could take the decision to operate at earlier hours, when the bulk of the populace are in bed and not in their cars. This could bring further efficiency gains through quicker rounds not held up by busy roads.
With quieter vehicles, of course, come health and safety risks. The safe operation of vehicles in the waste and recycling industry is already one of the biggest concerns of the Health and Safety Executive: moving vehicles contributed to 23 per cent of fatal accidents in the industry between 2012/13 and 2016/17, and that’s not including those involving pedestrians and other motorists. Having refuse collection vehicles move about in near-silence could pose dangerous problems when maneuvering in depots and working in tight spaces on the streets.
There are other impacts on the workforce to consider: direct exposure to emissions would be wiped out, and the fewer parts underneath the bonnet would require less maintenance, though of a different sort.
Training is necessary to ensure that operatives can adapt to new conditions, but as Steve Brown, Principal Consultant at Ricardo, says, electric vehicles come with a lot of opportunities and some issues. The trick is to iron those issues out so that the waste industry, and any relying on fleets, can reap the benefits.