|Ford’s Electric Postal Vehicle|
Power generating capacity in California may be inadequate during peak daytime loads, but in the dead of night it’s a different story altogether. Using rough numbers, California possesses about 50,000 megawatts of generating capacity, and over half comes from power plants that aren’t turned off at night, but we only use about 15,000 megawatts at night. What should we do with the extra power?
How about use it to charge up Electric Vehicles. If the charging electricity comes off the power grid in the wee hours of the morning when there is excess power with no place to go, then we’re using energy that might have been wasted.
This is the logic that brought the U.S. Post Office, Ford Motor Company, and a host of public and private partners together recently to bring electric vehicles into service in California. On Friday, April 20th, on the west steps of the State Capitol in Sacramento, the first of 500 mail trucks were delivered, powered by batteries and propelled by electric motors.
Electric vehicles that run on battery power can compete economically with conventional vehicles in certain niches, and Postal Service vehicles are a perfect example. The typical postal carrier route is 25 miles, and the vehicles delivered on April 19th have a range, fully loaded, of 40 miles. As such they remain practical in spite of having a very short range compared to typical gas powered vehicles. The advantages of electric vehicles are many: They are quiet, they are pollution-free, and they don’t consume energy when parked. Postal delivery requires frequent starts and stops, which creates much more fuel consumption and pollution in gasoline powered vehicles.
While the cost of these vehicles, $42,000, is nearly twice that of a standard gasoline engine vehicle, there are savings on maintenance that can bring the lifetime costs for the vehicles to near parity. The average postal route requires 400 stops per day, creating a high degree of maintenance requirements for a vehicle with a gasoline engine. The electric engine requires no transmission, has far fewer moving parts, and even with the high demands placed on it as a Postal Vehicle only requires minimal maintenance every 50,000 miles. The Postal Service estimates that maintenance and fuel costs per mile over 100,000 miles are $.22 per mile for a gasoline powered vehicle, and $.08 per mile for an electric vehicle, a savings of $14,000 per 100,000 miles driven.
The U.S. Postal Service, with over 200,000 vehicles in its nationwide fleet, has the potential to make a major impact on mobile source emissions. Their plan is to replace their gasoline-powered vehicles with alternative fuel vehicles as they are retired. By 2002 the U.S. Postal Service hopes to have 5,500 electric vehicles in its California fleet. The total pollution created by an electric vehicle is only 3% of that created by a gasoline powered vehicle.
The Post Office employees invited the press to test drive these vehicles and I didn’t hesitate. They actually let me drive off the capitol lawn and onto the streets of downtown Sacramento. The real adjustment wasn’t the motor, it was driving a car with the driver’s seat on the right side of the cab, and getting used to maneuvering a large truck in traffic. Once I got onto a straightaway, however, I was able to test the acceleration. At the first green light I floored the accelerator and noted the response. The truck was a little slow off the line, but unlike a gas powered car, suddenly picked up speed rapidly from 10 to 30 MPH. I prudently eased off once the speedometer hit about 35 MPH, but the vehicle definitely had power to spare. The wierdest thing was the noise – there wasn’t any.
One of the biggest concerns about electric vehicles is the cost of the batteries. The Ford vehicles use relatively conventional lead-acid batteries, with a life of 5-7 years. After replacement, the used batteries have a secondary market value where they can be used an additional 10-15 years. While battery recycling is commonplace and will certainly be practiced by the U.S. Post Office, the fact remains that batteries do not have the capacity to fuel electric vehicles for long trips. For electric vehicles to replace the gasoline powered vehicle in all applications, either batteries will have to be developed with far greater storage capacity, or be replaced with fuel cells, which themselves still require technological leaps to be economical.
But to fulfill the requirements of the U.S. Post Office, electric vehicles are economical and earth-friendly. They are an appropriate and commendable solution.