The City of London is currently trialling the first fully electric low-entry refuse collection vehicle (RCV) in the country. It is a 26-tonne truck which runs on lithium-ion batteries rather than diesel, and can complete a full 10-hour shift.
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If successful, it could mark the start of widespread uptake of electric RCVs, as cities across the country take measures to improve their air quality.
Sid Sadique, director of NRG Fleet Services, is the man who made this happen. NRG is a fleet management business that has around 2,000 vehicles, including its own that it supplies to customers on contract and lease. It also has mobile engineers and workshops to support these products in the field. Electra is a new business venture for the firm, which it owns and operates.
“Electra was born out of customer demand,” Sadique explains. “Last year I was challenged by a couple of my customers who said ‘we have got this impending agenda in London with clean air and we haven’t really got a solution so, as our fleet management provider, what are you doing about it?’
“I took the baton and went to see a number of manufacturers who are our key suppliers and started asking ‘what are you doing about the clean air agenda?’ and ‘what products have you got that I can supply my customers?’
“None of these [manufacturers] really had a solution that I thought at the time was going to meet the zero tailpipe requirements that most cities are going to be demanding from us.”
Sadique went out to look at electric vehicles (EVs), including five or six suppliers who were making them.
He explains that these were “small-scale companies” who had some really good ideas but “were never going to make it into production. They were used to working on grant funding, and if there was no grant funding they would go out of business.” But he saw technology that he thought had something in it: “My job became ‘could I get some of this technology into a vehicle of today?’
“One of the challenges I thought the small-scale manufacturers had was that the larger manufacturers of the chassis basically were not granting them access to the technology, and were saying ‘if you modify one of our vehicles it is down to you and we don’t recognise that vehicle afterwards’.”
So Sadique set about to bridge that technology gap.
“NRG is a big fleet buyer and has been around a long time. I used the relationship that we had built with manufacturers to say to them ‘I want you to help me modify some of your product and I want to produce an EV’. And gladly a number supported me.
“They granted me access to their 3D drawings and their Controller Area Network matrix, which is the electronic control system on a vehicle. That was a key door-opener for us.”
The vehicle used in the two-month City of London trial is a Mercedes Benz: it was an Econic low-entry cab but is now an Electra chassis. Electra is also producing two Dennis Eagle vehicles, is working with Iveco to produce a refrigerated vehicle and is developing a skip loader for another customer.
It has modified the trial vehicle using its own EV technology such as the battery packs and drive motors. Automotive tier 1 suppliers that are worldwide manufacturers have been chosen for components, so that it can match the quality of the original chassis equipment.
“Commercially, I think we have taken the right choice. We are using high-grade components to build up the EV part of the truck so it matches the rest of the vehicle,” says Sadique.
He highlights that it has been a collaborative approach with the chassis manufacturers: “We are not challenging these companies – what we have said is ‘let us be the door openers’.”
Sadique adds that when the chassis manufacturers introduce their own EVs in the next few years, there will be the opportunity for his business to shift from producing new vehicles to concentrating on the near half a million vehicles in the market that could require repower [modifying older vehicles to electric].
“There is a big repower industry out there – having got the technology and the knowhow, we will probably concentrate a lot more on repower than new vehicles.”
Back to the trial happening in London, Vince Dignam, City of London Corporation’s fleet manager, explains that the electric RCV has initially been set to work at Smithfield market, which is within a low emissions neighbourhood. Collections are continuous from 6am to 2pm while the market operates.
It is considered a tough environment in which to test the truck so, if it can handle this, the theory is that it should be able to deal with other jobs.
Electra on battery power
One of the issues around electric vehicles has been so-called ‘range anxiety’, with fears that the batteries will not be able to last for the duration of operations.
“Now the truck is working in anger, we have probably got more power than we need,” says Sadique. “It has got a 200kWh battery pack and for the next generation we will put in a 300kWh pack to give it an extended range.”
The batteries used in the Electra vehicles are military grade, so they will last for seven to eight years with minimal degradation.
They are expected to last a further 20-30 years after that and the plan – which has been well received by councils – is to use them in ‘battery farms’ after their useful life in vehicles. A social enterprise model would be used, so that they can power the likes of schools and old people’s homes.
“We had the exact same comparative chassis, the same size of vehicle and the same make – but a diesel version – so we are going to be comparing the air quality, the power output and how it can do the work,” said Dignam.
“Even in its first few days, the vehicle is working really well. The drive of it is amazing – the drivers love it.
“We thought there would be a bit of negativity because it is different and [drivers] don’t like change, but they are raving about it. Even the guys who load the back say how much better it is because there is a noise reduction as well – in fact, there is hardly any noise. So as well as air quality benefits, there are noise benefits too.
“And the market traders are coming out and asking ‘what is this?’ because they can’t believe how quiet it is.”
City of London’s trial will concentrate initially on commercial waste before moving on to household waste in different service areas. Due to the reduction in noise, there are also opportunities with night time waste collections.
Dignam says the opportunity to re-time collections with a switch to electric allows for a host of benefits beyond air quality and noise.
Shifting collection activities to night would bring huge health and safety benefits because there would be fewer vulnerable road users and cyclists around, and therefore fewer opportunities for accidents. Electric sweepers used at night time are another future consideration. With less busy roads at night, the efficiency of operations could be improved.
“We were one of those customers that went to Sid Sadique’s company and said ‘what is out there?’ I went to all the manufacturers, as did my colleagues, and there was nothing. So once Sid told us the electric RCV was coming to the market, we said we wanted to be the first to trial it because we are looking at the mayor’s diesel ban coming in.”
Dignam describes the trial as a “great step” and credits Sadique with driving the initiative forward. He explains that for the City of London Corporation, which has a new fleet contract to let starting in 2019, as well as the ultra-low emission zone coming in next year, “this fits with all our objectives and plans for the future”.
The commercial operator’s view
John Stephens, general manager logistics at Grundon Waste Management, writes: “We are looking at the feasibility of using all-electric vehicles for trade waste collections. We believe there is a real expectation from customers, especially national and global companies, for us to take a lead in introducing EV technology.
“The length of time the batteries will last on a daily basis means EVs lend themselves better to highly populated areas where daily mileage is shorter and speeds are lower.
“It is also important to ensure that such vehicles comply with standards set by the Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme scheme and also Transport for London regulations.
“In more rural parts, where higher daily mileage is necessary to meet collections, I suspect that until the technology develops further and the network of recharging outlets has matured, for the time being there will be a continuing need for fossil fuel-powered vehicles – in conjunction with a cleaner fuel, currently either hydrogen or electric hybrid options.”
“We are extremely conscious of the need to work towards greater emission reductions, and the recent launch of our ultra-low emission hydrogen diesel dual-fuel waste collection vehicle (see page 36) has been a big step forward towards this goal.
“Trials of this vehicle are ongoing and, if they produce the right results, they could pave the way for further future investment in dual-fuel technology.”
As well as RCVs, it is also looking at whether it can have some smaller 7.5-tonne vehicles by Electra to trial on its highways contract.
As to costs, Sadique says that when you look at its total cost of ownership (TCO) model over a five- to seven-year period, the operating cost on the ownership model is slightly cheaper than a diesel model by 1-2%. So it offers the benefits of zero tailpipe emissions with no additional operating cost.
“When you can demonstrate on the TCO model that it is thereabouts or actually slightly cheaper for you to operate these type of vehicles, then people say ‘that’s the way forward’,” Sadique adds.
Electra’s initial focus is on city centres. Sadique explains that the application is currently suited to ‘back to base’ operations because there is not yet a charging infrastructure in the UK for commercial EVs, although the RCVs have a 300km range.
Dignam, who sits on a number of working groups and associations on this topic, adds that the future could involve consolidation centres, where goods or materials are dropped off and exchanged. Charge points at these centres would mean vehicles could extend their travel distances.
For Dignam, the electric RCV fits with all the objectives the City of London is trying to achieve as part of broader agendas including smarter cities and the circular economy. He says he has be “inundated” with requests from local authorities and the private sector around the country to see the vehicle in action.
Electra trials have been lined up for Westminster, Sheffield and Manchester, and Sadique says he hopes to have another couple of vehicles on the road shortly, so that there is a decent demonstration programme. He has a pipeline of about 300 vehicles for manufacture.
“My challenge is to productionise this – and we want to use UK plc to help with the supply chain.”
If the trial goes well, and first signs look promising, Dignam hopes to see a full fleet of electric RCVs as part of his new contract that starts in April. His fleet of 50 cleansing and waste vehicles includes 12 RCVs, the remainder being vans, tankers and sweepers.
The two parties clearly work well together and are excited by what the trial’s success will mean for the future
“It’s a real game-changer,” says Sadique.