Inside the transition from diesel to electric

Modec, electric vehicle, UPS, London
UPS
The Modec electric van used by the UPS operations near London.

A recent GreenBiz webcast, "Supercharging Electric Vehicle Fleets," convened a panel of expert guests to shed light on how electrification of transportation fleets might be achieved through public-private partnerships, sharing insights from a joint project electrifying a 170-vehicle UPS fleet serving the Greater London area.

In 2013, UPS Camden’s 10 EVs maxed out the facility’s charging capacity. UPS responded to reaching its first "network pinch point" the conventional way: buying an upgrade from a local network provider. However, that approach "was expensive, inflexible and also required us to fund assets that were never going to belong to us," said Peter Harris, director of international sustainability at UPS.

So, when UPS Camden needed to update its charging infrastructure to accommodate 65 EVs, the company formed a partnership with UK Power Networks Services and Cross River Partnership that would assist in navigating a "combination of operations, economics and policy" to develop a "smarter approach with lower costs, greater flexibility and greater future-proofing."

Key challenges and opportunities

Electrification has become a rallying cry for the transportation sector, given that it contributes nearly 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The scope of UPS’ global operations reflects the transportation sector’s significant contribution to emissions. Harris said during the webcast that UPS delivered 5.2 billion packages in 2018 and currently moves 20.6 million packages each day. To achieve that level of service, the company operates over 120,000 vehicles and manages 2,320 daily flight segments.

Those global operations are coming into question because, as Harris described, we are "moving increasingly towards a world of low-emissions zones, with zero-emissions zones already coming onto the horizon in some cities."

Indeed, UPS aims by 2025 to have converted 25 percent of its fleet to electric. With that ambition come several challenges and opportunities.

Harris identified a major difference between vehicle- and infrastructure-related challenges and solutions. To those in the transportation and logistics industry, the three major vehicle-related difficulties would be no surprise: a lack of products; high costs; and concern overdriving ranges, he said.

The infrastructure issues are equally vexing: If a local community’s electric grid can’t support an influx of electric vehicles, an electrification initiative will have trouble shifting out of neutral.

"You can have as many EVs as you want. If you can’t recharge them, then you may as well not have them," Harris said. "As soon as we get to a certain number of vehicles in a certain location, then we reach a point where we can’t charge them. The lights simply go out."

Operations, economics and policy

For its Camden project, UPS turned to Rachel Stanley, a senior technology and innovation consultant at UK Power Network Services, to design a solution that is future-proof and scalable, doesn’t disrupt operations and minimizes costs.

At the start of electrifying a fleet, Stanley said, "It’s important to consider what infrastructure you have in place" to keep the vehicles charged. At UPS Camden, the network capacity included 68 charge points. Another consideration: The schedules and routes for the facility.

The solution suggested by UK Power Networks Services included four key components: a high-speed power meter; smart charge points; an active network management (ANM) system; and an energy storage system (ESS).

The ANM connects high-speed power meters and smart charging using ethernet cables, and it can be controlled remotely. The purpose is to avoid using too much electricity at peak periods, Stanley said. "Or, it could move charging to cheap periods at night. Or, it could allow dispatch from vehicles back into the grid when prices are high," she said.

The end result is that UPS Camden has the capacity to charge all 170 fleet vehicles located there without upgrading its distribution network.

When electrifying fleets drives the bottom line

Harris projected that within the next five years, EVs will match or beat diesel-based vehicles in terms of cost. Within the next decade, the infrastructure challenges will yield as well. 

"Sometime in the 2020s, it’ll be a no-brainer to put an EV on the street, and diesels will start to make no sense at all," he said. "At that point, it’s not a sustainability initiative anymore. It’s a commercial initiative. And at that point, things can take on a whole new scale."

The human element

Aside from infrastructure and technical implications, companies should also think about the effect that an EV transition will have on their workforces. Harris was thrilled to share that "drivers love the new vehicles because they’re quiet, vibration-free and there is no loss in volume inside."

However, he didn’t shy away from the negative aspects of the transition period, when a fleet is operating "part diesel and part electric." Because EVs can be charged only at a parking bay with a charge point, the diesel vehicle can’t be parked there. "That’s part of the transition, and we’ve been learning how to handle that," Harris said.

Stanley agreed that during the transition phase, "equipment gets pushed to its limits to adapt operationally to the site." For example, equipment may need to be moved to a bay with charging capabilities or a driver may forget to plug an EV in after a shift.

Changing with the times and technology

For Harris, the key learning from all of this is "there is no silver bullet. All organizations are going to have to confront the challenge of deciding which technology or group of technologies is optimal for them."

Perhaps at odds with electrification advocates, Harris pragmatically explained: "We’re moving from a single solution world of petrol/diesel to a multi-solution world. UPS will not be able to go forward with a single solution. We will need probably three technologies moving forward, at least for the medium term."

Still, the electrification of transportation fleets is coming. With favorable economics just around the corner, it’s time companies prepare their operations. Fortunately, there are organizations further down the road they can study and learn from.