Thinking about electrifying your utility’s fleet? You might be missing this one critical element

Fleet managers at large utilities are under pressure to “electrify their fleets”. And most will agree that it makes business sense to electrify their fleets to lower emissions. 

For example, Exelon just recently pledged to electrify 30 percent of its 7,200+ vehicle fleet by 2025, increasing to 50 percent by 2030.

Yet, the conversations I’ve witnessed at most major US utilities about fleet electrification seem to be missing one key distinction: electrifying vehicles and miles driven, and electrifying work functions and equipment are two separate things. 

Both are paths to electrification, but with different benefits and feasibility for utilities.

Today, I’m sharing some insight with fleet managers on why…

1

Usually, when utilities talk about “fleet electrification”, they mean electrifying miles driven.

2

This might be missing an important element for utilities.

3

Fleet managers should think about electrifying miles driven vs. electrifying equipment as two separate options.

By separating electrifying vehicles from electrifying equipment, you may be able to achieve your fleet goals – such as lowering costs, reducing emissions, complying with legislation, accessing grants, etc. – in a way that is cheaper, faster, more reliable, and less risky.

Read on to find out more.

Why everyone who is talking about fleet electrification is really talking about electrifying miles driven

Traditionally, the discussion about fleet efficiency has centered around improving fuel efficiency in the form of miles per gallon – or ‘driving efficiency’. Fleet managers have procured more fuel-efficient vehicles, decreased the weight of their work trucks where possible, kept engines and tires in good shape, etc.

Moreover, when thinking about assets like bucket trucks, fleet managers tend to group them as vehicles, rather than equipment transported to and from the jobsite by a truck chassis. 
So, naturally, when utilities now talk about electrifying their fleet to improve efficiency, they continue to focus on the chassis, where the natural progression is combustion engines, followed by hybrid powertrains, and finally all-electric powertrains which are assumed to be the ultimate solution.

Why talking about “fleet electrification” misses one important point for utilities

Looking at fleet electrification as electric vehicles misses the point that, especially for utilities, a significant share of your fleet is likely to be work trucks that drive for only a small portion of the day. 

The main purpose of these vehicles is to drive people and equipment a short distance to and from work and then to perform a work function on-site while being largely stationary. 
According to data from Ultimarc, the average heavy-duty bucket truck drives 9,283 miles per year (based on benchmark data from 2010-2014). That’s substantially less than other fleet vehicle categories.

If you’re trying to figure out how to best electrify the entire truck, you’re potentially missing a huge opportunity. 

That’s because the main lever for increasing efficiency and reducing emissions from these vehicles is to electrify the equipment, rather than the engine.

The key is to stop thinking about a fleet vehicle and the function it performs as one entity. 
Instead, you may want to think of electrification from the equipment down to the vehicle rather than from the vehicle up to the equipment. This will provide you with different routes for electrification.

How to think about electrifying vehicles and electrifying equipment separately

If you’re a utility fleet manager under pressure to “electrify your fleet”, you’re not alone. Here’s how we’ve seen leading utilities approach the task:

  • First, ask yourself why you’re considering electrifying your fleet. What are your goals? 

    Is it to reduce costs, reduce emissions, comply with legislation, access grants, meet emissions reduction targets for your organization, or all of the above?  

    Being clear about your goals will help you devise the most appropriate strategy for electrification.
Sustainability and environmental goals are the most common motivators for fleet electrification, followed by reducing the cost of ownership. Source: “Curve Ahead: The Future of Fleet Electrification”, a study by UPS and GreenBiz, 2018
  • Secondly, think about the criteria for your goals: 
    • Timing – how quickly do you need to meet your goals and targets? Are some more urgent than others? 
    • Feasibility – what effort will it require to meet those goals? Are there solutions that already exist in the market or do you need to wait for suppliers to develop a solution? 
    • Cost – how much will it cost to implement those solutions? What is your budget?
    • Other factors – which other factors would influence your decision? Crew safety, reliability, redundancy, ability to service the vehicles in-house, the capability to operate in a disaster recovery scenario, etc.

These criteria will help inform your strategy and provide guidance for its implementation.

  • Thirdly, analyze your fleet: How many vehicles mostly drive? How many idle for most of the day? Which ones perform a mix of driving and idling?
53% of utility work trucks idle for 3 hours or more per day. Source: “Work Truck Daily Idle Time by Industry”, US D.O.E., 2016

If you have even a small number of vehicles that mostly idle while performing a work function, it might be worth looking into solutions that electrify the equipment of those vehicles.

Why prioritizing the equipment could be a smarter way to electrify utility fleets

If you have work trucks that mostly idle while performing a work function, you may be able to start electrifying the equipment immediately and in a way that is less risky than banking on buying electric vehicles. 

Read how Duke Energy is electrifying its fleet of bucket trucks

Here’s what leading utilities have told me why they’ve chosen to electrify the equipment first: 

  • Fully electric work trucks won’t be widely available in the near future.
  • There are hybrid solutions already available in the market that are consistent with the current paradigm of the chassis powering the equipment; while there are a couple of solutions that can readily electrify the equipment, separately from the chassis.
  • Some of those existing solutions can be upfitted or retrofitted in a couple of days or a few weeks, rather than having to wait for months or potentially years to get a solution as part of a new truck.
  • Electrifying just the equipment tends to be cheaper than replacing the entire vehicle with an electric or hybrid vehicle, and savings on fuel and maintenance are realized faster.
  • Therefore, the internal rate of return (IRR) tends to be higher and the payback times are shorter, making it easier to meet utilities’ internal investment criteria.
  • Some electric solutions are separate from the vehicle, so they 
    • can operate separately from the truck, and you can switch operating modes from electric to chassis engine-driven when required
    • can be charged using a standard power outlet and don’t require a complex charging infrastructure
    • can be retrofitted and installed independently of the buying and selling cycles for work trucks
    • don’t impact the resale value of the truck as they can be removed before the sale; if anything, the resale value increases as the engine idles less in its lifetime

Watch this video to see how a SmartPTO electrifies the work function of a utility truck

Electric vehicles are just one of many options for fleet managers thinking about electrifying their utility’s fleet

There’s no doubt that fleet electrification is the way forward for utilities. 

After all, the transportation sector contributes the largest portion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at 28 percent, according to the U.S. EPA., and the medium-and heavy-duty truck sector accounts for 23 percent of those emissions.

Yet, by focusing purely on electric vehicles as a means of electrifying their fleet, utilities might be missing one important point: a large share of their fleet only drives for a few miles and then mainly idles.

Electrifying the equipment of 25 work trucks could save your utility around $1.5m/year
Source: Viatec Inc.

Instead, fleet managers should consider thinking about electrifying vehicles and miles driven vs. electrifying work functions and equipment as two separate options.

By prioritizing the equipment of your vehicles, you may be able to kick-start your fleet electrification strategy more quickly and in a way that is cheaper, less intrusive, and less risky.

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