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In defence of electric vehicles

Due to new technologies, especially in the field of batteries, and to the need to tackle climate change, we now see a true fresh start to the use of electric vans all over the world. This is particularly true in the postal sector, with operators wishing to cut their CO2 emissions through the use of electric vans as well as electric delivery tricycles or bicycles.

Considering the way the work is organised, the batteries can be recharged during the night, when electricity demand is low. The human part of the recharging task takes only 20 seconds: 10 seconds to plug it in on return to the depot and the same in the morning to unplug it.

In France a national organisation initiated by public authorities is responsible for commissioning electric vehicles. About 15 large utility and construction sector companies were interested in acquiring electric vehicles. Jean-Paul Bailly, CEO of La Poste, who coordinated the action, has just announced the names of the vehicle manufacturers who have been retained and will deliver the first lot of 23,000 vans – light commercial vehicles and two-seater vans – as soon as possible over a maximum of four years.

On this first bid La Poste reserved 10,000 electric Kangoo vans for mail delivery and collection. In the future we expect other postal operators around the world to join this initiative, where technical specifications were drawn up in order to meet the needs of each member of the order group.

For its part, Japan Post Service is considering a similar initiative with an electric tricycle project for mail delivery, in association with other postal operators, among which is La Poste.

The next meeting of the UPU sub-group Alternative Fuel Vehicle Innovation and Safety (AFVIS) will take place on 26/27 January 2012 in Paris. At the event the postal sector will share initiatives and discuss the evolution of alternative vehicles. The meeting aims to share know-how and encourage common purchasing to decrease prices of electric vehicle. Every post interested in attending the meeting is welcome. (UPU contact: claude.montellier@upu.int)

The assets of electric propelled motors
With oil prices soaring, and probably becoming even more expensive in the future, electric motor efficiency is a real asset. Electric motors are now able to convert 75 percent of the chemical energy from the batteries to power the wheels, while internal combustion engines only convert 20 percent of the energy stored in gasoline.

The result is that for the same price, one can drive seven times further in an electric powered than in a gasoline or diesel powered vehicle – and with no exhaust gas emissions. Furthermore an electric van requires less maintenance, with no oil changes and fewer breakdowns, as the electric motor is by far simpler than an internal combustion engine. Hybrid cars, with an internal combustion engine associated with an electric one, are even more complex.

Electric vans also excel at smooth driving, which not only saves energy and reduces pollution but is also safer. We have registered a fall of more than 50 percent in the number of accidents due to driver error with electric vans. We believe that with less noise and no gears to change, the driver is able to pay more attention to the road and other users. The effect of this is a drop in van immobilisations, repairs and staff absences from work, all of which save money.

Taxes are cut to a minimum in many countries as they offer a purchasing premium (Euro 5,000 in France). Several studies show that over its life, an electric vehicle is profitable at even a twice the price of an internal combustion vehicle (and three times the price in the case of a tricycle).

Now, we know how to recycle the batteries
Some issues still have to be considered. One is the emissions from the original power source (coal, gas, nuclear, wind, solar or hydroelectricity) used to charge the batteries, and another is waste battery treatment.

It is ideal, of course, to use low-emission sources (hydro-, wind-energy or even nuclear energy). However electric motors have much higher efficiency than internal combustion engines, resulting in less energy use per kilometre. So even when using lignite or coal to produce electricity, taken over their useful life (a ‘well-to-wheel’ perspective) electric vans emit less CO2 than internal combustion vans.

As for the cost of batteries, which represent up to half the price of the vehicles, only three to five years of further development are needed to increase production volumes and cut the cost by about 50 percent.

We now know how to recycle waste batteries, which contain a number of heavy metals and toxic chemicals (cobalt, nickel, lithium). They are presently reprocessed and Umicore and Rhodia have recently announced the first recycling programme for rare earth metals from NiMH batteries; it is expected to be launched towards the end of 2011. After separation the rare earths will be processed into a high-grade concentrate that will be refined and formulated into rare earth materials at Rhodia’s plant in La Rochelle, France. The materials will be resold to battery or wind-turbine manufacturers.

Investigating what to do with innovative electric vehicles when they reach the end of their life, Nissan launched a trial that uses four of the company’s Leaf batteries to store power generated by rooftop solar panels. Old batteries could be used to store green energy in households.

The batteries of cars that are not being driven might also act as reservoirs to provide the car-owner’s home with relief power in case of a power cut. Nissan’s idea is that a fully charged Leaf could run the average Japanese household for two days.

If you wish postal operators to cut the emissions of their transports, adopt the electric van!

Patrick Widloecher
Chairman of the project group ‘Sustainable Development’ at the UPU, former chairman of the working group ‘Electric Vehicle purchasing’ for the Grenelle de l’Environnement (France)

 

Comments:

I welcome the article and the renaissance of electric vehicles. However we remember various similar events in the past decades. This time it appears more realistic and sustainable due to considerable improvements in batteries, in particular regarding improved storage capacity, power utilisation and battery recycling. However we should not forget the environmental effects of battery recharging. During my involvement in electric vehicle development we always argued that battery charging by public power is environmentally better because pollution generated by power plants is more effectively controllable. Nevertheless we have to consider these emissions as well and electric vehicle users should carefully verify where and how electricity is produced.

Hopefully the UPU initiative leads to more intensive use of electric vehicles; the benefits are manifold. We know that fleet operators, e.g. postal services or community services, are best suited to replace their gasoline or gas-powered vehicles by electric vehicles. But what about countries with low or insufficient, sometimes unreliable, electricity generation? Many countries in Africa suffer from insufficient power generation, but in many cases they can make use of renewable energy resources, mostly solar, wind and water. It would be advisable to promote decentralised solar powered recharging units for those countries. 

Although several organisations offer conferences and workshops on electric vehicles I would like to see a special UPU conference, probably at one of the next POC sessions or the next Post-Expo, providing comprehensive information on electric vehicle use, risks and challenges, infrastructure requirements, maintenance and procurement, in particular for member countries with insufficient public power supplies. 

Guenter Boehm
LogCon Management Consultant



Guenter Boehm, LogCon Management Consultant


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