Malcolm Bates travels to Denmark to drive a new 26 tonne zero-emissions Refuse Collection Vehicle. Is this the future of urban refuse collection?
The city of Frederiksberg in Denmark is home to around 103,000 people and is situated close to Copenhagen on the island of Zealand. By any standards, it’s a pleasant place to be. The people of Denmark have one of the highest standards of living and rate amongst the most environmentally responsible on the planet.
You want proof? It takes social commitment to separate up to ten waste factions every week. In practical terms, this means that every street in the city is visited by a refuse collection vehicle (RCV) not once a week, but once a day as each different faction is collected on designated days.
There’s another factor to consider. Aside from fire appliances, Refuse Collection Vehicles (RCVs) are probably the largest vehicles to visit each and every domestic street. When you spell it out, it’s blindingly obvious. But how often do we take that into account? You only get to see a fire appliance when there’s a fire. But an RCV? It’s always there 2just when traffic congestion is making life difficult.
There are other ingredients to stir into our story. Denmark has liberal employment laws. It takes the health and safety of workers very seriously. And encourages cycling as a way of cutting down on greenhouse gases and noise pollution in urban areas.
All very worthwhile policies. Except ... Except Frederiksberg city authorities run a f leet of twenty two 26-tonne diesel RCVs which, as we were just discussing, are out on the streets every day. True, increasingly, they are Euro-6 Dennis ‘Elite’ chassis featuring low-entry cabs for greater crew safety and equipped with some of the latest CCTV and cycle awareness warning ystems available. But
is that enough?
GOING THE EXTRA MILE
Beyond Euro-6, there are only two practical emissions-reducing alternatives compressed natural gas-fuelled power units (CNG). And true ‘zero emissions’ vehicles which, in real terms, means battery electric power. Many cities have tried CNG-fuelled RCVs for waste and recycling operations.
But some have since gone back to diesel because of frustrating reliability issues, or problems relating to range between refuelling. But while gas-fuelled power units are cleaner and quieter, enabling them to operate in ‘Low Emissions Zones’, the number of vehicle manufacturers producing this option is still limited.
And battery power? Again, there are some seductive arguments. Paris a world destination city if ever there was one has already declared that a central ‘Zero Emissions Zone’ is the only way to go. Highway cleansing and waste collection services in Paris are already operating an impressive mix of smaller battery electric vehicles. But full-size 26-tonne gross refuse collection vehicles (RCVs)? Well, surprisingly, yes.
“Some years ago, we looked at the PVI battery electric RCVs working in Paris and considered them as an option for waste and recycling collection operations here in Denmark,” explains Ole Philip, the head of Frederiksberg City highway cleansing and waste collection services.
“But those early vehicles had a limited on-station time, as well as a small payload for what was a large full-size, three-axle truck,” he explained. Those early zero-emissions units, built by Pontecelli (now called PVI and a division of Renault Group in France) did indeed offer limited range and compaction, but as the battery technology improved, so has the performance.
LOW ENTRY. ZERO EMISSIONS
“As we were already operating a fleet of British-built Dennis ‘Elite’ chassis fitted with Olympus compaction bodies, we were naturally interested to trial one of the new
generation PVI units as these were based on the Elite chassis and low entry cab,” Ole Philip explained. To cut a long but very interesting story short, after an initial look at units working in Paris, Frederiksberg became the first city outside France (where manufacturer PVI is based) to operate a full-size, zero-emissions 26-tonne compaction RCV in everyday service.
That was three years ago. Today? Today, Frederiksberg is back in the record books by taking delivery of a second unit. And due to recent changes in legislation, the new unit will run at 27 tonnes gross.
My job? Well, this is a special day. I’m allowed to drive this second unit before it enters service. The start-up procedure is, as you might expect, simple. The cab and most of the controls are exactly like those of a diesel Dennis ‘Elite’, on which the PVI design is based. The electronic vehicle control systems take a few seconds to satisfy themselves that all is well and we’re ready to go. Except ...
CAN YOU HEAR ANYTHING, YET?
This is amazing. There is no start-up drama. No diesel engine rumble. And even though I’ve pressed the ‘D’ position on the automatic gearbox control, there is no indication that anything is connected. Handbrake off and apply pressure to the throttle pedal. It pulls away silently, without noise. “Give it more power,” suggests Brian Olesen from Phoenix Danmark (the PVI, Dennis and Terberg/Ros Roca distributor) who is riding with me.
The acceleration is more than enough to enable us to keep up with other traffic. And the much-improved lithium-ion bat technology now available means this level of performance should stay constant through the working shift. And how long is that? We’ll ask the driver of the first unit, when we find him. That first PVI now three years old is at work somewhere in downtown Frederiksberg.
The automatic gearshift works as if by magic, although I need to adjust my driving style to take account of the constant torque characteristics of the electric motor. We have already travelled on three-lane urban motorways and busy suburban roads. Now for some busy inner zone city streets full of cyclists and pedestrians. Remember, the PVI is virtually silent. Will they actually hear us coming? There is an urban warning bell (much like those fitted to tramcars), to warn of approach without using a blast of the horn. A nice touch.
All Frederiksberg RCVs show their location by GPS on a Satnav screen, so we soon find the original PVI outside an apartment block in a quiet side street. Driver Carsten confirms the battery power lasts a whole two-load day shift with plenty in reserve.
He loves driving it and jokes that should he have a day off, the other drivers would be fighting to take over his vehicle! Later, back in his office, City Council fleet boss Ole Philip confirms he has a waiting list of drivers wishing to ‘go electric’ and says that given a suitable budget, he would replace the entire RCV fleet with PVI units. But an inner zone fleet of between four to six is his next objective.
LESS FATIGUE. HIGHER PRODUCTIVITY?
Although my time at the wheel was lim ited, ‘first impressions’ often count the most. But if the lack of noise inside the cab is amazing and that’s not to say the Volvo diesel-powered Dennis Euro-6 ‘Elite’ (on which the PVI is based) is noisy, then the performance is ... Well, it’s ‘Electric’!
In stop-start city traffic, the PVI can stay with cars and taxis between traffic lights. But on faster highways? It cruises easily at 65 km/h (40 mph) and has a maximum of 90 km/h (56 mph). True, we’re running unladen, but the performance really is impressive. And reliability? Ole Philip reports the first unit has now clocked-up 40,000 kms (25,000
miles) in three years. He also re- ports that not only has it been largely trouble free, but maintenance costs have been lower than on comparable diesel-powered units. “Tyre wear and braking system repair costs have been greatly reduced,” he explains.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There’s no getting away from the fact that a highly specialised piece of equipment like this is going to be more expensive than a comparable diesel-powered unit. But by using standard production Dennis Elite components, wherever possible including a normal truck driveline (propshaft and rear axle) rather than electric wheel motor drive costs have been kept down.
Unfortunately, the lithium-ion battery pack and control systems don’t come cheap as a result, a zero-emissions PVI chassis is likely to cost almost double the price of a diesel-powered Dennis of the same capacity to purchase, but... It could be a big ‘but’ because in addition to near zero fuel costs (once the batteries have been paid for), the environmental gains are considerable not only for residents, shoppers and tourists, but also in terms of improved safety and reduced fatigue for the drivers and crew.
How do you put a price on that? I’m not sure, but it could be argued that the additional purchase cost over a diesel unit could be funded from city tourism, business development or environmental budgets. And that would change the economics considerably.
Battery manufacturers rightly suggest that once purchased, customers have paid for several years-worth of fuel as well. It’s a great sales pitch but is it true? “Experience with the batteries on the PVI units in Paris suggests a service life of up to ten years (at over 80% of efficiency when new) is possible, working two regular four-hour shifts every 24 hours,” explains Brian Olesen of Phoenix Danmark.
“We calculate our figures on a seven toten-yearr service life,” he adds. Those figures suggest cost-per-tonne collected/ mileage travelled could be much closer to diesel than the purchase price differential suggests.
Ole Philip of Frederiksberg reports payloads of 10.8 tonnes per load (at a legal 27 tonnes in Denmark) and comparable shifts-per-charge compared to diesel RCVs. The battery control system has a ‘get you home’ reserve and includes an unloading procedure ‘reserve’ without cutting out.
“We’re still formulating how we might meet the challenges of the future, but our experience with the first PVI suggests that we might be able to change from a two-load-per-day shift pattern, to a three-load-a-day strategy with crew change. Thanks to near silent operation, we could start much earlier in the morning to avoid the morning rush hour, then undertake a second load once all the kids have gone to school, with a third load in the afternoon,” he explains.
“This higher utilisation is a real bonus and could go a long way to offset the higher initial purchase costs,” he confirms. “Using diesel vehicles for nighttime or very early morning collections would not be acceptable in Denmark.”
He’s right. The PVI delivers comparable performance and payloads to a diesel RCV. True, the purchase price is considerably higher, but this is offset by reduced maintenance costs, increased utilisation, and however you frame it, the unique ability to make a city centre ‘Zero Emissions Zone’ a reality. Not after 2025. But right now in 2017.
And that’s got to be worth something.