Opinion

Burns & McDonnell Stakes A Key Place In Electric Van Scene

REUTERS/JEAN BIZIMANA - Vehículo eléctrico
photo_camera REUTERS/JEAN BIZIMANA - Electric vehicle

I don鈥檛 quite know why, but since I was a small boy in Africa, I have been fascinated with the idea of electrified transportation. 

When I was about 9, I proposed to my father that we put a motor on a bicycle and feed it power from the little generator that rubbed on the front tire and kept the light on if the cycle were moving fast enough. My father, who knew about such things, gave me a lesson on why perpetual motion wouldn鈥檛 work.

Later in London, I was fascinated by the electric vans that were used by Harrods, the legendary department store, for deliveries. These ran on lead acid batteries and, with distinctive green livery, they were ubiquitous on the streets of Central London for decades.

Forward again to the energy crisis, which began in the fall of 1973. I was concerned about how electricity could substitute for oil. Absent anything offering more than limited mobility using lead acid batteries, my thoughts turned to public transportation. 

In 1974, I helped to write a study for President Nixon in which we advocated electrifying the railroads. At that time, I also spoke up for trolley cars which took their power directly from overhead wires, but the connection could come off the wire on turns or if the trolley had to swerve to avoid an accident.

According to someone who really knows, my dreams are all coming true 鈥 and amazingly fast. He is Kyle Pynn, Transportation, Electrification Business Line director at Burns & McDonnell, the engineering, construction and architecture firm.

Pynn doesn鈥檛 design or build electric vans or trucks, but he does build the systems that charge them and works with the companies that deploy them. Currently, he is working with about 20 utilities, getting them ready for the surge in demand from fleet owners, primarily for vans and regional delivery trucks.

The big growth, Pynn told me, is going to be from delivery vehicles that cover the last 150 miles. He expects that in 10 years, electric vehicles will make up 30 percent to 50 percent of the regional haul and last-mile delivery fleets 鈥 that vital last 150 miles. It will be driven by large fleet owners like Amazon, UPS, the U.S. Postal Service and FedEx 鈥 the latter a customer of Pynn鈥檚 and Burns & McDonnell.

Pynn鈥檚 work is to help the utilities meet that load and to build out the charging infrastructure for the fleet owner. There is no one-size-fits-all.

鈥淔leets don鈥檛 have the same demand and if they have a lot of down time, they may not need DCFC (Level 3 chargers) which would top them up inside an hour,鈥 he said. 

For example, they may be able to charge overnight. This changes both the volume of the power delivered and the charging facility. A fast charge could be as much as 1 megawatt an hour, but overnight, it would be more the equivalent of charging an electric vehicle in a domestic garage, multiplied by the size of the fleet.

For the vehicle owner, the length of time the vehicle is on the road is a critical factor in designing the infrastructure for its charging. If it is going to be limited mileage, then the van or light truck can have a smaller battery and less weight. If they are in motion longer, the battery has to be larger and, necessarily, it will be heavier.

As Pynn looks across the electrification world, he sees a landscape where there are endless possibilities. But each system must be somewhat bespoke, depending on the variables of miles, time in motion, speed, frequency of charging and other specific use factors, like what is being delivered.

Buses are an example of predictable routes and possibly frequent top-up charging. Pynn told me that buses can be frequently charged with overhead installations using a pantograph: the same concertina-type device which has been used for electric trains on long-haul routes, as seen throughout Europe and on the Northeast Corridor, running from Boston to Washington. 

Pantograph is an old and reliable technology, but it gets a new assignment when it comes to fleet charging. Using pantographs in a charging yard, the EV doesn鈥檛 need to be wired up, but can simply drive under a charging point and the pantograph will extend down to charging bars on the roof of the vehicle 鈥 a technique already in use in some places.

For buses, this opens the possibility of a lighter vehicle which can draw a booster charge at points along its pre-assigned route, at a bus stop or transit center.

Pynn and his Burns & McDonnell team are more cautious on their expectations of intercity buses and trucks.

Here, Pynn speculated, hydrogen and fuel cells are likely to do the job, but they won鈥檛 be on the scene fast enough to accommodate the rush of city delivery vehicles from Amazon, UPS, FedEx and other operators which is now underway. The assignment for Pynn and his team is to get the fleet owners and the electric utilities ready for this new world in intra-city transportation.

Trains will have to wait. While it is unlikely that old-fashioned, electric long-haul trains will ever be built again, there is work underway on rechargeable locomotives. Here weight isn鈥檛 a penalty and new heavier battery types can be considered, as can limited charging points along the line, much like the pattern emerging for buses.

Meanwhile, intra-city delivery is the hot ticket.

On Twitter: @llewellynking2

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "Chronicle of the White House" on PBS.