Replacement of council fleet vehicles with zero emission versions

The following is an anonymous blog on how a council is considering and planning the replacement of council fleet vehicles to work toward net zero.

This case study is a part of the LGA's Decarbonising Transport Action Learning Sets (ALS) programme


A major complication in the planned changes to council vehicles is the fact that almost all of them are lease vehicles. This has two main effects; firstly, the vehicles are subject to a rolling programme of renewal which means that new vehicles are automatically lower emission versions. Secondly, the terms of lease agreements are usually such, that modifications are not allowed ruling out retrofitting new abatement technologies. There is a major change required in the way the council operates its fleet to achieve a truly zero carbon footprint. A transition to electric vehicles sounds like a sensible step on paper, but that is not the full story.

The challenge

At present almost all council fleet vehicles are diesel or petrol apart from a few electric cars operated by adult care services. The council has several electric chargers installed at our main depot (20) and the power consumption is offset by rooftop photovoltaics. The current situation is largely due to council policy which is to lease all but the most specialised vehicles. This has been based on the premise that a properly structured lease transaction permits off-balance-sheet treatment. Whilst the vehicle cannot be treated as an asset, it does not show up as a liability. In addition, the administrative burden of ownership falls on the leaser, therefore reducing the council’s administrative input. It is easy to see that the lease of fleet vehicles is an attractive option, and that ownership would incur additional costs beyond vehicle purchase. A decision on lease vs purchase must therefore account for all costs to the authority. Owning vehicles allows for updating technologies by retrofitting, however extracting maximum value from the vehicles may mean operating old technology after a few years. Leasing allows a rolling programme of renewal guaranteeing up to date technology.

If we were to replace all the heavier vehicles with electric versions, the load on the electricity substation would necessitate a major upgrade of the local supply costing £1 million plus. Clearly that would make the project unaffordable.

At a time where council budgets are again being stretched to breaking point by the pressures of social care and all the other statutory obligations of the authority, finding the capital for a major renewal project that would burden the council with a depreciating asset might be difficult.

There is a considerable conflict between the council’s declaration of a climate emergency with an accelerated target for net carbon zero council operations and the constrained budget situation. Without significant additional external funding the progress to an all-electric fleet seems doomed. However there needs to be a considered plan put in place to introduce the changes as funds or funding methods become available. This will clearly need the approval of members and senior officers.

Actions to be implemented resulting from ALS learning


As a result of discussions in the action learning set process there are a few actions that will be used to take forward the project of achieving a zero-emissions council fleet. The question of heavier fleet vehicles is perhaps the most difficult to address. Before any vehicles are purchased, a suitable depot for recharging must be found that has a sufficient electric supply that will not involve enormous cost.

Three possible projects have been identified that would provide emissions savings from council vehicles:

1. Fitting of electric lifting devices to council Refuse Collection Vehicles (RCVs)

The fuel consumption of RCVs is very high, in the order of 3-4 mpg, fitting an electric bin lifting device increases this to about 5.5mpg which is an improvement of up to 80%. Consequently, the emissions from the RCV fleet would be similarly reduced. Whilst this is not a zero emissions option it will be a stopgap until a site is found for a depot that doesn’t have the power restrictions of the current location.

2. Replacement of diesel cars with battery electric vehicles

The council currently leases a small fleet of Peugeot diesel cars to provide mobility for home carers. These could be replaced with battery electric vehicles to reduce both CO2 and NOx emissions to zero. As the vehicles would be taken home by carers overnight, they would have to be provided with charging points, currently this could be achieved at low cost provided the employees have off street parking. With the imminent installation of some rapid chargers in the town centre and some district centres there would be opportunity for ad hoc charging to take place at lunch time etc. The range of smaller battery electric vehicles currently available would be ideally suited to this use. The cost of leasing compared to a diesel vehicle is likely to be slightly higher however this would probably be offset by reduced fuel costs.

3. Replacement of vehicles used by Neighbourhoods and Adult Services (NAS) with zero emission equivalents.

Some of the small diesel busses operated by NAS could be replaced by electric versions, however it may be sensible to wait to see the results of electric bus trials in other parts of the country before making the commitment. Service ranges and availability of wheelchair -friendly versions will be critical

In addition to these potential projects, it has been suggested that electric pool cars could be made available to staff in the main council building to replace “grey fleet” vehicles. Experience at York City Council suggests that this can be made to work, in their case in conjunction with the operation of a car club. At the present time there would not be an available budget to accommodate the purchase of the vehicles and there would be a somewhat lengthy process to go through to set up the usage parameters for the vehicles (Unions, HR etc.). The one plus side is that the building has 10 charging bays already installed along with rooftop photovoltaic panels to offset the electric load.


What will the impacts be? 

Carbon savings are an obvious but difficult to quantify impact of the transition to zero carbon, but there are also significant beneficial impacts to air quality particularly the reduction of nitrogen oxides and fine particles that are detrimental to human health.

A fleet of electric vehicles would also have the benefit of encouraging uptake amongst local businesses and potentially residents. Seeing a new technology at work is often the catalyst for wider acceptance and has been part of the council’s role for some years. In the drive towards net zero the council can show the way.

Long term sustainability

To keep on track with the decarbonisation over the longer term to achieve the net carbon zero target we will have to enter a phase of negotiation with budget-holders, members, and unions to find ways of implementing changes to achieve the objectives. This will not all be done at once, dividing it into several workstreams and projects will help to maintain sustainability in the longer term by reducing the tasks to discrete “chunks” that can be addressed sequentially.

All zero emissions vehicles that are brought into the fleet as replacements will contribute to long term carbon reduction.

Lessons learned 

In the widest sense there are many lessons to be learned for the ALS approach. Primarily that the same problems are repeated across almost all authorities. Erratic and unpredictable funding streams make planning change difficult. There are layers of internal bureaucracy that are unhelpful given that a net zero target has already been agreed. There is a great deal of inertia in fleets that have been based on diesel for many years.

ALS has been extremely useful in sharing experience and testing ideas.