Is now the time for the construction industry to switch to electric LCVs?

A combination of Government initiatives, improvements in battery technology and falling costs when compared with traditionally-fuelled vehicles has created strong momentum in the electric vehicles market over the past 12 to 18 months.

Both the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy and announcements in the Autumn Budget will ensure this rise in adoption levels continues. The injection of £400m into a new Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund will provide local authorities with funding to install new charging points, while the £220m Clean Air Fund will help them implement measures to tackle air quality, such as the introduction of new low and zero emission Clean Air Zones.

Recent figures released by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show both consumers and businesses have responded, with new electric vehicle registrations up by nearly 40 per cent year-on-year in November.

But despite the rise, the construction sector – whose day-to-day operations and success depend heavily on cost-effective and reliable vans – has been hesitant in going electric compared with businesses in other sectors.

First and foremost, this is because the factors to consider when making a switch to electric light commercial vans (LCVs) are very different to those that go into switching to an electric car from petrol or diesel. Not least of these is that the range of models available is still very limited.

What do construction firms need to consider before transitioning to electric LCVs?

For construction firms, vans are workhorses and electric LCVs need to be fit for purpose and cost-effective above all else, limiting the impact that funding and running costs have on the bottom line.

It’s important to thoroughly assess whether battery-powered LCVs currently stack up to their diesel equivalents. The key things to consider are:

• Daily and annual mileage – Most electric vans have a range of approximately 100 miles, meaning they are far more suited to low-mileage operations. Travelling long distances to depots and between sites could be impractical with the current battery technology. Ranges are also greatly affected by other factors,
such as a high payload or even bad weather, which can reduce mileage range by up to 30 per cent.

• Vehicle size – Existing LCVs, such as Nissan’s e-NV200 or Renault’s Kangoo Z.E, tend to be smaller vans. The size and nature of the goods construction businesses will need to transport, such as plant, may well necessitate using the larger medium-base and short-base panel vans, so downsizing might not be practicable.
However, this could soon change. Mercedes’ recent announcements on the electrification of their current van models (starting with the eVito) shows an ever-increasing faith by manufacturers in the viability of larger electric LCVs.

• Payload – Due to the extra weight of the batteries and electric drive train, payloads are often reduced compared to the equivalent diesel-powered vehicles. But transporting tools and materials to construction sites means payloads are frequently high, so it is an important consideration.

• Charging point availability – Charging infrastructure in most parts of the UK is still very much in its infancy.  Superfast charging points are spread few and far between outside of London, so recharging will take three to five hours in most places. This presents a significant issue for construction firms operating across long distances. A work-around might be to set up a dedicated charging point, but this could be difficult at a building site that doesn’t have mains power. Installing them at depots only can be an expensive undertaking, and may result in vans being out of range when travelling between construction sites across the country.

• Specialist support & insider knowledge – Electric vans are still relatively new, so it may be useful to seek expert support from a trained dealer or leasing provider. They behave differently to diesel vans, so advice on best practice driving ensures businesses can optimise the cost benefits and environmental performance.


What are the benefits of switching to electric?

There are multiple whole-life cost (WLC) benefits to be gained from adopting LCVs, most obvious of which is the price of fuel. Charging an electric van typically costs four to five pence per mile, as opposed to seven pence or more for a diesel.

Van maintenance costs are a major issue for construction firms and going electric has the potential to reduce these by up to 35 per cent. There are fewer moving parts in an electric engine that are vulnerable to damage or general wear and tear, meaning there is less likely to be a fault when compared with a diesel equivalent.

There is also the reduction in road tax to consider and the likelihood of savings from driving in low-emission Clean Air Zones at no cost. This has the potential to make vans a far more cost-effective delivery system for construction sites in urban centres.

Businesses working in or crossing London who replace their older vehicles (generally pre-2006) will also avoid the new £10 “T” charge – an additional layer to the Capital’s congestion charge aimed at vehicles built before current Euro emissions standards were introduced.

Built-up urban or residential areas often have noise restrictions during the small hours. Quieter electric LCVs may offer out of hours delivery to circumvent this – something particularly useful when deadlines are tight and materials are needed on site for completion.

Finally, the increasing number of sustainability clauses in tenders is notable, which is particularly prevalent when working with the public sector. In the Autumn Budget, it was announced the transport sector in the metro-mayoral regions will receive £1.7bn in investment – likely to translate into a rise in infrastructure projects. Introducing electric LCVs would show a commitment to reducing environmental impact, something that could set a construction firm apart during a competitive tender.

Are electric vans viable for the construction industry now?

This depends on how quickly both the battery technology and model ranges progress. For most large construction firms, daily mileage and payload are likely to be high so diesel may still be the best option while the maximum travel distances of electric vans are still comparatively low.

Furthermore, the current availability of electric vehicle models might not offer the storage capacity to support the volume of materials that need to be transported. Particularly for firms currently using tipper and dropside vans, electric alternatives are not available at the moment.

However, electric LCVs will become much more feasible as charging infrastructure improves and larger models become available. This, alongside the clear government push towards electric vehicle adoption, means that now is the time for the construction industry to start considering a transition towards a greener fleet policy.

Russell Adams, commercial vehicle manager at Lex Autolease.

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