Don’t count on seeing electric garbage trucks plowing snow from city streets any time soon.
The city Department of Sanitation's goals to become carbon neutral are clashing with the limits of electric-powered vehicles.
The department aims to switch all 6,000 vehicles in its fleet from gas to electric as part of the state’s goal to reduce emissions by 2040. But city officials say they haven’t found electric garbage trucks that are powerful enough to plow snow.
The department has ordered seven electric rear loader garbage trucks, custom-made by Mack and costing more than $523,000 each, with delivery slated for the spring. Used for curbside trash collection, the department’s current rear loader truck fleet runs on diesel and is outfitted with plows to clear streets during snow season.
But officials say previous electric trucks tested by sanitation have not lasted longer than four hours plowing snow before running out of power, and the new electric trucks will be used for trash collection but not plowing snow.
“We found that they could not plow the snow effectively – they basically conked out after four hours. We need them to go 12 hours,” Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch told the City Council last month. “Given the current state of the technology, I don't see today a path forward to fully electrifying the rear loader portion of the fleet by 2040.
“We can't really make significant progress in converting our rear loader fleet until the snow challenges are addressed,” she added.
Some other snowy cities don’t use garbage trucks for snow removal. In Denver, municipal snow clearing is done by smaller light-duty trucks equipped with plows, and some residential streets may not get plowed by the city at all.
But New York City’s commitment to plowing each street puts the sanitation department’s 2,100 collection trucks to work each winter, clearing the equivalent of 19,000 miles of street lanes. The service is one of the mayor’s most important duties. Mayors Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg both faced withering criticism while in office for slow snow removal.
The department’s goal of fully electrifying its fleet goes beyond technological challenges presented by the vehicles themselves. It also requires building charging stations and other infrastructure, Tisch said.
Sanitation’s heavy-duty electric vehicles need DC fast chargers, which are similar to Tesla superchargers. But the department currently only has access to 13 such chargers, Tisch said.
While the city is trying to expand the network, “this charging infrastructure requires additional space and often new electrical utility connections that can require substantial capital investments,” she said.
Harry Nespoli, the president of Teamsters Local 831 union representing sanitation workers, said he’s concerned how the electric trucks will be charged and if they’ll maintain power for a full shift of constant driving without leaving workers stranded.
“How much power do they have? Can they run 12-hour shifts without a charge? I don't know,” Nespoli said.
The department has ordered electric models of other equipment like mechanical broom sweepers, which clean the streets during alternate side parking. Officials said they’re excited about the new electric garbage collection trucks, which look similar to their diesel counterparts but make no engine noise.
“The truck is so quiet, we add white noise so that people around the truck are aware of its presence,” said sanitation spokesperson Vincent Gragnani.
But for now, the diesel rear loader trucks will remain the department’s primary street plowing vehicles.
“With current technology, full electrification isn’t possible now for some parts of our fleet, but we are monitoring closely and really hope it will be,” Gragnani said.