Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Modec Proposal - Electric Trucks Could Bring (Locally-Grown) Groceries To You

In many industrialized countries today, a dozen people would drive a dozen gasoline (or diesel) cars to the supermarket, where energy is wasted on everything from open-shelf fridges to bright lighting. Then, they would drive the same dozen vehicles back with the groceries. Carbon emissions all around. What if instead, these households all ordered their groceries online from an energy-efficient warehouse, and a single electric van delivered their orders on one circuit route? You've got to see this TV report: Channel 4 News.
Part of the Stern Report Monday 30th October 2006: (video : 4 mins).

The delivery part already exists in Canada: for example, Grocery Gateway does it six days a week in the Greater Toronto Area. You can even specify your delivery time down to a fairly narrow window (typically, 90 minutes). It's a great service, and we've been using it a lot lately, in an effort to reduce driving to the store.

But a Grocery Gateway driver has told me that the goods come from the shelves of Longo's Supermarkets, not from more energy-efficient warehouses. They don't always have everything in stock. And they use diesel powered delivery trucks.

In the UK, "Tesco.com, Britain’s biggest internet grocery retailer, has ordered 15 vans for their home delivery network" from Modec, a new company making all-electric delivery vehicles. (See Item 5 on Modec's FAQ, which is worth reading in its entirety.)

Right now, "Modec is governed at a maximum speed of 50mph. Although the vehicle is capable of more, it is designed for urban use so the energy saved by limiting the top speed can be used to enhance the performance and range of the vehicle." (FAQ Item 4, subheading "Speed".)

In suburbs, you would have to use both streets and highways, unless your depots or stores have very good coverage. Modec are looking into Lithium phosphate batteries instead of their current Sodium Nickel Chloride ("Zebra") packs (see FAQ Item 3, subheading "What battery packs are available?"). But highway speeds don't seem to be their priority, because electric vehicles save the most energy in urban driving.

Actually, this would be yet another argument for higher-density planning.

In related news, it's easier to find produce flown in from California than local fruits and vegetables -- even when they are in season in Ontario (as documented in an excellent story in the Toronto Star). Another story from the UK shows that large grocery chains with their "hub-and spoke" warehousing systems can make it hard for local farmers to sell to local customers.

Hmm... How about electric trucks for ecological food delivery services that support local organic produce?


rethinker said...

This is an interesting thing... but I'm glad to see that the issue of local food is raised as well. After all, isn't it the case that most of the carbon emmissions involved in the food system are in the transport of foods long distance? How the food gets from the local warehouse to our house seems fairly unimportant compared to the average 1500 miles that food travels from farm to plate.

And electric vehicles would be better than our own gasoline powered vehicles, but then one must ask how the electricity to charge them is generated. Wind and Solar would be fine, of course, but right now if everyone switched to electric vehicles the strain on the electrical distribution system couldn't handle the load.

Local production, and a completely different energy production and distribution system, I fear, are necessary to stop global warming.

The overall problem with this article, for me, is that it is suggesting a new form of consumption, giving the impression that if we just make different individual shopping choices, we can solve the problem. The reality is that solutions need to be implemented on a much larger scale, probably by governments and institutions that control energy production, if the transformations of our society that are necessary are to come about.

ydzabelishensky said...

Thanks for your comment. I don't pretend to have all the answers. I phrased the last sentence of the blog post as a question, and I'm glad to see that I've sparked some debate. I agree with you on some points, I'm not sure about others, and I disagree with one argument that you make.

First, I agree that individual changes are not enough. Individual choice can make a difference (e.g. the growth of organic farming based on individual consumer demand). But government action would be required as well, to help transform our society into a sustainable one (e.g. conventional agriculture is still dominant, wasting soil, resources and causing pollution).

In fact, we've talked about government policy and politics frequently in this blog. Our list of labels (a bit further down in the right frame) includes economic policy, industrial policy, transportation policy, land-use planning and quite a few others.

Having said this, in a democracy, government are accountable to citizens for their policies. I would argue that exploring alternative food distribution methods can help spur both individual action and demand for government policy change. Do we want the current policies, which end up favoring big-box supermarkets, flying produce in from the other side of the planet even in the local summer and fall, surrounded by a sea of asphalt for parking gas-guzzlers? If not, then what policy outcomes should we promote instead? To answer this question, we need to look at the best practices around the world, and then try to imagine ways to do even better.

Both flying food in bulk around the world and individuals driving back and forth to stores should be reduced. I'm not sure about which is more carbon-intensive, though. On the one hand, the Soil Association in the UK has been thinking of decertifying organic food flown in from overseas due to its carbon footprint. They worry about the negative impact on farmers and economies in developing countries, though (BBC). On the other hand, a UK study has found that food distribution to retailers and individuals driving to the stores can also have a major impact on pollution and road congestion:

"The report said the mode, timing, location and efficiency of food transport was as important as the distance covered.

"Defra minister Lord Bach said: 'This study is an interesting contribution to the 'food miles' debate.'

"'It shows that the issue is complex and that a range of factors have an effect on the overall impacts of food transport, not purely the distance travelled by individual products.

"'[...] For example, internet buying and home delivery can cut vehicle kilometres and reduce road congestion.'

"Lord Bach said buying local products had the potential to reduce the distance covered, but that those benefits could be compromised if the methods of distribution were inefficient and caused congestion.

"The report also suggests better monitoring of air transport of food, because it was more responsible for the highest carbon dioxide emissions per tonne of cargo and was the fastest-growing sector." (BBC).

But the concept of "Food Miles" has its critics. Some argue that producing tomatoes in sunny climes that don't require energy-intensive greenhouses may counteract energy-intensive shipping to northern consumers. Others claim that farmers in some countries farm more sustainably than "local" farmers in other countries, which arguably also offsets the energy that is used in transportation. (Wikipedia.)

As for electric vehicles just shifting the pollution to power plants, and overloading the power system, I'm afraid that I disagree with you completely. It's an old argument that's been discredited many times (see e.g. Plug-In Partners FAQ item and Environmental Benefits). Here's my take on it:

Electric vehicles can be recharged at night, when power demand is low. Capacity is not a problem. A U.S. study found that their existing power system can handle 84% of their vehicles being run primarily on electricity -- which would save about 5% of overall U.S. CO2 emissions (Treehugger.com). The CO2 savings in Canada would be higher because more of our electricity is already renewable, i.e. hydro.

When in motion, electric motors can reach up to 90% efficiency (Wikipedia), which is inherently more efficient than internal combustion engines (ICE):

"Most gasoline fueled internal combustion engines, even when aided with turbochargers and stock efficiency aids, have a mechanical efficiency of about 20%. The efficiency may be as high as 37% at the optimum operating point in engines where this is a high priority such as that of the Prius" (Wikipedia, footnotes omitted).

When stopped, electric motors consume no energy at all. (Non-idling ICE in hybrids use powerful _electric_ starters.)

Finally, reducing emissions from a few fossil-fuel power plants is easier than dealing with millions of individual vehicles of different ages, engines and (non-)maintenance histories.

For a comparison of battery-electric vehicles with other alternative fuels, see pages 19-29 of this Tesla Motors Presentation [PDF] (hat tip to WH Networks).

rethinker said...

Thanks again for this informative response. Of course I wasn't trying to defend suburban big box stores, just to suggest that focussing on individual consumer decisions can be problematic. Much more needs to be done, but not just more - a different set of assumptions about what causes social change must be employed here. Governments are accountable to citizens as you say - but they are not accountable to consumers. Those two identities are profoundly different, and the outcome of discussing the issues is very different depending on how you think about who we are.

As to plugging in EVs overnight, that seems correct - I hadn't really thought about the load overnight. Certainly the peak load is during the day, and all we would need is some way to prevent the irresponsible from charging up their car while the load is high. But I wonder if exactly the same is true in Canada - after all, in the depths of winter, in many places, there is a high load from heating homes, I would imagine.

Perhaps what we really need, then, is some electric trucks delivering groceries from central warehouses to neighbourhood depots, to which we could all walk (and then meet our neighbours, etc) but also some big windmills on top of the grocery warehouses to charge the trucks! How is that for a vision?