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L.A. Looks to Electrify Construction, Maintenance Fleet Vehicles

The Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services is testing out fully electrified heavy equipment from Bobcat and Volvo as it transitions to a more zero-emission fleet. Other hybrid vehicles have already found their place in the city fleet.

A plugin-hybrid electric street sweeper is recharged at a mobile solar-powered charging station in Los Angeles.
A plugin-hybrid electric street sweeper is recharged at a mobile solar-powered charging station in Los Angeles.
Submitted photo/Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services
It’s not just standard electric cars finding their way into city fleets. A division of the Los Angeles Department of Public Works is in the testing phase of electrified equipment like excavators and street sweepers.

The L.A. Bureau of Street Services (StreetsLA), which operates about 1,000 vehicles, is engaged in an initiative called “Path to Zero Emissions Fleet,” which aims to grow its use of zero-emission trucks, as well as other less obvious vehicles, helping to advance the market for electrified equipment.

“What we decided is we want to be a leader in charting that path to zero emissions for public construction and maintenance fleets,” said Greg Spotts, executive officer and chief sustainability officer for StreetsLA. “And rather than waiting for the L.A. Department of General Services to buy us some EVs, we want to work directly with manufacturers to borrow, rent, pilot plugin vehicles, learn more about which use cases they’re best suited for.”

One of the companies StreetsLA has been working with is Bobcat, which has just introduced an electrified excavator and loader, shaking up what has for decades been a sector dominated by diesel engines.

“The time that we’re in currently, with the high price of fuel, the high price of anything oil-based, is driving the conversation even deeper,” said Randy Fuss, director of government accounts at Bobcat, adding other drivers for electrified equipment are the goals and mandates enacted by cities and states to transition public fleets toward more sustainable alternatives.

“There is a significant amount of interest. Because with this type of technology the government will be the first mover, or at least the early adopter,” Fuss added. “We can see that in states like California or New York where they have specified mandates or sustainability targets that will require the adoption of this type of equipment technology.”

As a starting point toward transitioning to zero-emissions operations, StreetsLA would like to remove fossil fuel vehicles from its tree-planting operation, making it possibly the first all-electric public works crew in the state. To do this, the department is exploring some of the electric equipment offered by both Bobcat and Volvo.

“They both seem to be coming into the space with small loaders and small excavators,” said Spotts. “And these are really intriguing for us. Because you could potentially have the entire tree-planting operation be quiet, zero-emission electric vehicles.”

The department is already on course to receive its first Ford F-150 Lightning pickup in the coming weeks, “which we think could be a real game-changer for us because we operate about 300 pickup trucks,” said Spotts.

Los Angeles recently hosted Bobcat at a facility where the city recycles green waste. Officials have also attended a demonstration by Volvo.

“We’re very, very excited about how these pieces are starting to be available,” said Spotts, adding that in many cases the department will first rent the devices to fully test and prove that the vehicles and equipment work for the city’s various use cases.

The desire to transition to electric is driven not just by a goal to reduce emissions. Electric equipment can lead to significant cost savings, say Bobcat officials. The electric loader is 90 percent cheaper to operate than its counterpart, said Justin Odegaard, acceleration manager at Bobcat, when considering routine maintenance and fuel. StreetsLA consumes some 1.25 million gallons of diesel and gasoline annually.

The equipment is also quieter, and operates with less vibrations, a bonus for the people operating the devices.

“I’ve yet to see someone climb out of that cab without big eyes and a smile on their face, impressed that they could get that much performance out of a battery-powered machine,” said Odegaard.

The electric Bobcats can be recharged overnight with a standard 220-volt Level 2 charger or outlet, and can operate about four hours continuously. Operations like idling draw next to no power, allowing the machine’s use to stretch over the course of a day, say company officials.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s a minuscule amount of power that is being used when the operator is not doing work,” said Odegaard.

An electric Bobcat still costs about 2.5 times that of a standard diesel model. Company officials say the cost will come down as Bobcat increases production.

“It’s going to be hard to say when that’s going to happen. But right now, on the short term, the economies of scale are not in our favor, with handfuls of machines, not thousands of machines,” said Odegaard.

Growing the market for electric equipment is an area where government, with its fleet purchasing capacity, can help to expand the market, say Los Angeles officials.

“We’re confident we can do that because we did it already in compressed natural gas,” said Spotts, adding that Los Angeles was a leader in deploying natural gas powered garbage collection trucks, street sweepers and more. The city is now moving forward with the purchase of a plugin-hybrid sweeper that reduces fuel consumption by 25 percent to 30 percent.

“We have a long history … for making the market of cost-effective, alternative fuel equipment that does real work, and accomplishes real tasks,” said Spotts.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.

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