Taking steady steps to fleet electrification

Nottingham City Council is overcoming the barriers to EV adoption, as Jess Shanahan discovers.

The need to decarbonise has been made quite clear, and to reach these goals, many organisations are looking for ways to replace their fossil-fuel vehicles with electric. There’s been plenty of progress in this respect with the number of business leases on zero-emission vehicles (ZEV) rising from 17% in 2022 to 28% in 2023, according to the BVRLA’s Road to Zero report.

There are also numerous government initiatives to support this — including grants for plug-in vans and trucks — and the government has stated its commitment to replace 100% of its own car and van fleet with zero-emission vehicles by 2027. This has encouraged many businesses to make the switch to electric.

Despite the buy-in from businesses, many local authorities seem to be lagging behind. Around 20% of councils have started the electrification of their fleets with at least 10% of their vehicles now electric. While this is good progress, it’s not enough to set an example to the businesses that have committed to transitioning more than 600,000 vehicles to zero emissions by 2030.

This seemingly slow progress is attributed to the barriers to EV adoption, which range from cost and availability to the lack of internal resources to support the transition. Nottingham City Council, however, is managing these challenges, putting it ahead of many other local authorities.

“We’ve got 243 EVs,” says Matt Ralfe, Innovation and Change Manager at Nottingham City Council, “meaning just over half the fleet is fully electric. Within that, we’ve got cars and vans, but we also have the first fully electric sweepers, cage tippers, minibuses, and bin lorries in the UK.”

You don’t have to electrify all at once

One misconception when it comes to transitioning to electric is that you have to do it all at once. For most organisations, this would be incredibly costly. A better strategy is to look at the vehicles that might need replacing soon and to start there.

“I’ve never had the money to transition a fleet to electric in one go,” says Ralfe. “We’ve never looked at our cage tippers, sweepers, or bin lorries and thought ‘I’ve got a spare £12 million, let’s just sell the diesel lorries and buy all-electric ones.’”

Instead, Nottingham City Council took a slower approach, replacing vehicles as needed and when possible. This process began seven years ago, allowing Ralfe and his colleagues to learn important lessons along the way.

You don’t know until you try

For many organisations making the switch to electric, there’s no substitute for just taking the leap. It might be a small step with a few vans or a single lorry, but with this comes a chance to better understand how an electric vehicle might work in those specific applications.

This approach can lead to some pleasant surprises. “Our electric bin lorries mainly collect downhill — as they did when they were diesel — because it’s more efficient,” explains Ralfe. “As you load up the back, you’ve got more weight on the brakes so you’re increasing the regen of the battery as you go downhill. So some rounds are coming in with about 40% battery left at the end of the day. They’re also finishing up to 45 minutes quicker thanks to the instant torque, which makes it easier to manoeuvre around cul-de-sacs or pull away from roundabouts.”

When speaking to a commercial vehicle dealer about your ZEV needs, you’ll get great information on range, safety features, charging speeds, and more, but you’ll never truly know how that vehicle performs until you start to use it. For Nottingham City Council, this meant more unexpected benefits, as Ralfe explains: “We’re experiencing about 50% savings in maintenance on some vehicle types, which is not something dealers will commit to because they can’t guarantee it.”

Fleet strategy

When considering how you’ll make the switch to electric, strategy is important but it’s vital not to get sucked into the trap of overplanning. “People are spending so much time and money coming up with fleet electrification strategies,” says Ralfe. “They’re thinking about how they can get a fully electric fleet in, say, 2030 or 2035. But that means they’re missing out on the learning that comes from switching what you can today. We need to focus on what can be replaced imminently and the savings that can be achieved.”

The key here is to think about how you use your fleet. It’s tempting to go for vehicles with the largest range and payload possible, but this can be cost-prohibitive. Instead, consider the distance the vehicles do each week and the work they’re undertaking, then look for electric models capable of that — there’s no need to go for the most expensive option. The same goes for your charging infrastructure, look at your real-world requirements and only install what’s needed.

“When we got our e-Collect bin lorries, we were told it would be best to get a 150 kW charger because the battery is a massive 350 kWh. The logic was that a super-sized charge point would be needed. But our fleet is static 13-14 hours a day; a vehicle completes a shift and then just sits in the depot. So we’ve installed 20 kW charge points that will fully charge the battery by the time the vehicle needs to go back out. It’s saved us millions of pounds in substation, connection, and charge point costs.”

Rather than focussing on a strategy to replace all fleet vehicles over the next six years, think about what can be done in the next one or two years. While it might feel as if there are a lot of barriers to transitioning to electric, there’s so much to be learned from taking those first steps, even if it’s with just one or two vehicles.

“We’ve shared our experiences with 120 local authorities and I’ve never come across one that can’t have at least one electric vehicle today — and most can have considerably more,” concludes Ralfe.