Recently, I’ve been talking to more and more CTA members about the possibility of introducing electric vehicles into their operations. As we see the increase in Low Emission Zones being introduced in urban areas, and the Government’s plans to reduce CO2 emissions coming into effect, it’s only a matter of time before electric vehicles in the community transport sector will start to become more commonplace. Already this year we’ve seen the launch of two new car schemes which are run completely using electric vehicles and I’ve noticed a growing trend within our membership of organisations who are keen to hear more about the possibility of making the switch as they design their future vehicle replacement plans.
This isn’t a simple conversation though. The significant costs of buying an electric vehicle rather than a traditional diesel vehicle, along with concerns about charging infrastructure, can understandably make organisations, who often have to stretch every penny, nervous about taking the leap to a different type of vehicle. Many who are thinking about it are keen to hear the experiences of other community transport providers who have started using electric vehicles.
A member’s perspective
I talked to Caroline Wegrzyn, Business Manager at Holderness Area Rural Transport (HART) who recently took delivery of two electric vehicles, to find out why they made the move from diesel, the challenges they faced and what they’ve learned in the first months of operating their new vehicles. HART, in partnership with their local authority, received a grant from E.ON and LEADER Coast, Wolds, Wetlands and Waterways, to purchase two new electric vehicles: a five seat Nissan Combi and a 14 seat Orion minibus. They received the grant three years ago and took delivery in 2018. Caroline told me that it took a while to procure the vehicles; the market for smaller electric vehicles is fairly well established in the UK, so the Nissan Combi wasn’t an issue, but the lack of availability for electric minibuses created a challenge for HART who managed to procure a specially made Orion from Mellor Coachworks.
Once they’d found the vehicles, their next step was to think about the charging infrastructure, to figure out the best way to charge them in the depot and to understand the options for charging the vehicles if they need to do so off site. The Nissan is charged at the depot each night by simply plugging the vehicle directly into the mains and has a 105 mile range when fully charged. The main service that HART use their electric car for is taking people from nearby rural villages to hospital appointments in Hull.
The hospital is located around 20 miles from the depot, but once the driver has made three or four pickups from neighbouring villages the vehicle is often well on its way to reaching its 100 mile limit. Caroline stressed the importance of deciding to purchase a vehicle with the facility to be charged using a rapid charge point, telling me that she didn’t realise at the time what an important decision this would turn out to be. Due to the fact that the vehicle is able to use these rapid charge points, the driver is able to go to the nearby Nissan garage and use their charge point free of charge whilst their passengers are at their appointments. With rapid charging, the vehicle will reach 80% charge in just 20 minutes, making it ready to complete the return journey.
The electric minibus had to have its own charging infrastructure installed at the depot which HART were able to fund as part of their grant. When fully charged, the vehicle has a range of 100 miles. HART use Zap Map, an online map which allows them to search for the nearest charging station to plan their journeys as well as keeping a list of all local free charging points in the vehicle in case drivers need to make an unplanned stop.
Naturally, there was some anxiety expressed by drivers with many not having driven an electric vehicle before. They were given lots of time to familiarise themselves with the vehicles, taking them out for a spin around the block to understand how slowly the battery uses up energy. Caroline laughed, telling me that now the drivers are desperate to use the vehicles, often coming into the depot to request being put on the hospital run so they can get into the driving seat! Interestingly, HART have also found that younger people are taking a keen interest in volunteering when they hear it would be an electric vehicle they’d be driving, which was unexpected and extremely positive.
In terms of the figures, it’s clear to anyone who has looked into purchasing an electric vehicle in the past that it’s certainly not the cheapest option available, with an electric minibus costing around three times as much as its diesel equivalent. Over time, however, there are significant savings on fuel costs. The Nissan Combi costs just 4p a mile to run which is a saving of 10p per mile on a diesel car, and the Orion minibus costs 13p per mile with a saving of 12p per mile on a diesel minibus.
The importance of infrastructure
Community transport providers may also be finding that measures to tackle emissions are driven heavily by their local authority. Nottingham City Council were astonished to discover that they were top of the list in 2014 when the World Health Organisation published the urban areas in the UK which were breaching safe levels of air pollution.
They’ve since embarked on their ‘Go Ultra Low Nottingham’ project which led to the council being named as one of the UK’s first ‘Go Ultra Low’ cities. As part of this process they undertook a vehicle replacement programme to replace all diesel or petrol vehicles with low emission equivalents where possible. The next department to benefit from this will be passenger transport which provides services to vulnerable and disabled people within Nottingham. The plan is for seven diesel minibuses to be replaced with five electric minibuses. I spoke to Anne Marie Scott-Reddish who is managing the replacement of the council’s fleet. She said that securing the infrastructure to support the use of electric vehicles is key to their success. The city council have 40 charging stations within council premises, 95 public charging points in the city with a further 55 due to be installed. They also plan to install another 60 charging stations on council grounds.
Making sure that the infrastructure is in place, and ensuring that the demand for electricity can be met by the grid, has meant that they can be confident in moving towards an almost fully electric fleet. This commitment from Nottingham City Council to reduce emissions will no doubt be replicated by other councils where there are reports of high emission levels and is likely to create opportunities in turn for community transport providers to benefit from this investment in infrastructure.
Reducing emissions through driver training
For many readers, this could strike a chord with your plans and spark exciting ideas for the future. But if making the significant commitment to bringing on board electric vehicles isn’t viable at the moment, there are still ways that community transport providers can improve their carbon footprint.
Techniques around driving habits for example can make a significant difference. MiDAS, the driver training programme administered by CTA, has theory and practical training modules on driving for safety and economy which can reduce vehicle emissions. Kenny Duncan from Lothian Community Transport Service told me that he’s trained a significant number of drivers using techniques such as driving smoothly, stepping off the accelerator as early as possible when slowing down (activating the fuel cut off switch), and block gear changing all of which reduce fuel consumption and therefore reduce emissions. Kenny mentioned that many drivers, especially older drivers who passed their test before fuel efficient driver training was the norm, have remarked on how they can see significant benefits, both when driving for community transport and in their own personal vehicles.
Moving towards a more sustainable future
There are clearly enormous benefits to community transport providers using electric vehicles and levels of satisfaction amongst organisations who are making the switch is high. And as we look towards a future where the government plans for almost all vehicles on the road to be low or ultra-low emission, it seems clear that this is the direction that both personal and public transport is heading. But it’s also clear that the current cost of switching to electric vehicles, especially minibuses, is prohibitively high for many community transport providers.
As electric cars have become more commonplace however, we’ve seen a significant reduction in price, and a second hand electric car market has sprung up where until recently it didn’t really exist. As more and more organisations consider and make the move to electric vehicles, it’s only a matter of time before we see the same thing happen for the sale and resale of electric minibuses.
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