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Current± Chats: UPS’s Claire Thompson-Sage on grid constraints and fleet transition

Image: UPS.

Ahead of the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles in the UK, fleets are undergoing a major shift. For many companies, this comes with grid constraint challenges as the demands of a full fleet of electric vehicles (EVs) pushes the network.

In an effort to overcome such challenges through smart tech, logistics giant UPS is running the Electric Vehicle Fleet-centred Local Energy System (EFLES) project together with UK Power Networks and Moixa.

Current± caught up with Claire Thompson-Sage, sustainable development co-ordinator at UPS to discuss the project, the need for flexibility and what’s next in their vehicle decarbonisation journey.

What have the biggest challenges been when it comes to the surrounding infrastructure needed for EVs?

The infrastructure is a bit of a battle, and that's one of the barriers to EVs. Grid upgrades are traditionally quite difficult to administer, and also very costly. That adds to the cost and upfront capex costs as well as deploying EVs.

We did a first grid upgrade in our Camden depot some years ago, and that gave us the ability to charge up to 65 vehicles. In 2017, we'd reached that limit. So we started to explore other options now that technologies were moving along as was the transition to the smart grid technology, which was part of the SEUL project. So we worked with UK Power Networks services, and looked at doing smart grid technology to reduce the CAPEX costs for electric infrastructure.

There was a lot of learning from that, and we got some added benefits as well in the system that the software can identify where we've got errors in the charging points. So typically, the charger will show as being on or off. But if there's, for instance, a fault with the cable or it's been damaged, and it may be working but not charging at the rate we expect, the smart grid technology will alert us. So it helps us balance out maintenance and making sure that the EVs are fully charged, ready for dispatch in the morning.

How much flexibility can be built into these smart charging technologies?

That's something we're working on now. We've taken the smart grid technology to the next level, again, working with UK Power Networks services and software company Moixa. The EFLES project has really been more about how we can utilise technology to make the smart system even smarter, and linking with other services.

We are at the early stages of implementation, so a lot of work so far has been done behind the scenes with data and building the algorithms. But we’re looking to test that out later this year and have the project finished by October.

[The project] is looking at how we can integrate the smart system with grid pricing, with demand for electric charging, using more rapid charge if we want to select a vehicle to be ready earlier in the morning for early dispatch, and also how we can integrate with solar and other services to really balance out the system, but also to gain cost savings, more OPEX savings as opposed to CAPEX savings in what we do. What's the price of electricity at any given time? What do we need to do with it? And how can we maximise our use of electricity based on pricing?

Could smart solutions such as those being trialled in EFLES completely solve grid constraint concerns?

Every city is different and faces different challenges. So whilst we can have all of this equipment and things like solar can assist to balance out power, there is also a bit of unknown as we move forward. More private individuals have electric cars, we’re looking for options in electricity for heating systems in private living accommodation, and how much the grid can supply, how much electricity is available and how we plan to build- that is still a bit unknown.

For instance, with solar power, it's great, but it doesn't fit with our energy profile in that we use most of our electricity running the conveyor systems and charging the EVs in the hours of darkness. So you've got to combine that then with battery storage systems.

And the other challenge we face is we've looked at solar in Camden. And one of the issues we've got to address is that there's a lot of high rise accommodations being built across many cities. What we don't want to do is invest in solar and then find out you're in solar shading and surrounded by a load of high rise tower blocks. So it's working with councils and cities as well to think about where we can generate power ourselves, or where we do need to get it in from energy service providers.

What's next for UPS and your fleet electrification?

So across Europe, we have invested in Arrival and committed to purchasing up to 10,000 vehicles, which will predominantly be in Europe and North America. We're really looking at where we want to place those in cities.

One of the technologies we've also got to look at coming forward is that the current EVs usually can do around 100 miles a day. But we need to look at where we can get additional mileage solutions for EVs that can address the longer distance routes.

So we did work with a company called Tevva and have trialed some range extended EVs that we've dispatched in Birmingham and Southampton. So they used a small diesel generator, which recharges the batteries, and we can geo-fence that technology so that if for instance, the vehicle was within a clean air zone, we can make sure that that vehicle only operates using electricity within that area, so that the diesel generators are prevented from being in use within a clean air zone so we have zero tailpipe emissions. So that's one solution.

We also have with the Arrival vehicles, dual charging, so it has got the standard 11 to 22 charge rate, but also has a socket for rapid charge should we wish to top up charging at a downtown location. There's an offset of a driver parked for up to 20 minutes to do that. But it does give us other options.

To find out more about UPS’s fleet transition, join the Addressing Last Mile Challenges to Decarbonise How We Get Our Goods session at the Everything EV Summit this Thursday, run by Current± publisher Solar Media. For more details, click here.


Molly Lempriere Deputy Editor, Current±

Molly Lempriere is deputy editor at Solar Media, responsible for its UK-facing publications Solar Power Portal and Current±.


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