Ruinously-high diesel prices mean that the scales might just be tipping in favour of electric vans for short-haul local delivery work. That's the view of George Alexander, commercial vehicle editor at used van and truck pricing specialist EurotaxGlass's.
With zero exhaust emissions and emitting next to no noise, they meet two of the key requirements of an environmentally-conscious age.
Use one to deliver into the centre of London and you won't have to pay the congestion tax. Nor will you be liable to the charges that will be levied when the capital's Low Emission Zone starts to affect light commercial operators in 2010.
You may also discover that you're quids-in when other major cities start imposing their own local taxes on hard-working van owners.
You'll find your electric is zero-rated so far as Vehicle Excise Duty is concerned and that some councils offer parking concessions and even charging points. Your fuel costs will be negligible — sometimes as low as 1.5p to 2p a mile — and with no internal combustion engine, your servicing costs will be significantly reduced.
“Those needing to transport loads over short distances on congested roads, typically at crawling speeds, might well discover that the time is right to go electric,” Alexander suggests. “However the advice must be to run such a vehicle on a lease over an extended period in order to get the full value out of the technology.”
Decide to go electric and you're increasingly likely to be spoilt for choice. At the British Commercial Vehicle Show held earlier this year there seemed to be an electric light commercial on almost every stand.
Piaggio was displaying an electric Porter, finance house Lloyds TSB Autolease was exhibiting an electric Fiat Doblò Cargo Maxi converting by MicroVett of Italy, while London-based specialist retailer Nice was pushing the virtues of MicroVett's battery-driven Fiat Fiorino, Scudo and Ducato as well as its Doblò Cargo. Aixam Mega and Stevens Vehicles — it sells its battery-powered light commercial as the Zevan — were pursuing the electric route too while LDV announced plans to develop a battery-powered Maxus.
Also present was Coventry-based Modec, with an electric that's produced as chassis cab, a dropside and as a capacious van. The last-named vehicle is now on trial with newspaper distributor Menzies and Modec has made significant inroads into the fleets of a number of other well-known companies.
Perhaps most significantly, Ford was exhibiting a battery-driven version of its Transit Connect converted by Smith Electric Vehicles and marketed as the Ampere.
There are three key drawbacks with electric light commercials, however: range, payload and price.
You can only drive so far before the batteries need charging up again — it takes several hours to charge them up fully — and that limits your ability to tackle long trips. While that won't be a problem if you only ever do 30 or 40 miles a day, it means you won't be able to race from, say, Birmingham to Preston in an emergency because you'll run out of juice somewhere on the M6.
The weight of the batteries cuts your payload capacity and they will eventually need replacing and disposing of in an environmentally-friendly manner.
What's more, you will pay several thousand pounds more for an electric van than you will for the equivalent petrol- or diesel-powered vehicle.
There are signs that things are improving, however, thanks to developments in battery technology. Smith's Ampere is equipped with the latest lithium-ion iron phosphate batteries that give the user a range north of 100 miles and a decent payload capability of up to 800kg. Top speed is 70mph — electrics have never been hampered by a lack of performance — but remember that the faster you go, the faster you'll drain the battery pack.
Price premiums are still high in most cases, but they are bound to come down as electric van sales rise and producers start to enjoy greater economies of scale. The downside is that as electrics become more popular, some of the tax concessions that owners currently enjoy could disappear.
An alternative to battery power is a hybrid; a vehicle that uses a diesel engine plus a battery pack and an electric motor to get from A to B. Energy generated through braking helps recharge the battery, which may be used as the sole power source when the driver is travelling through environmentally-sensitive built-up areas.
Mitsubishi Fuso has built a diesel/electric Canter Eco-Hybrid 7.5-tonner equipped with a 145hp diesel plus a 35kW electric motor. Daf has developed a hybrid LF 7.5-tonner, while Connaught Engineering has come up with a hybrid system that can be fitted to Ford's Transit. As well as an 85hp 2.2-litre diesel it employs a 48v electric motor plus compact super capacitors rather than batteries.
Mercedes-Benz has developed the Sprinter Plug-In Hybrid with a 258hp 3.5-litre petrol engine — undoubtedly with the US market in mind — plus a 71kW electric motor. A 3.9-tonner, it can travel for getting on for 20 miles on battery power alone.
Regenerative braking is used to help charge up the lithium-ion batteries and the driver can plug them into the mains either overnight or while he's on his break.
Hybrids reduce both fuel consumption and harmful emissions. Trials of diesel Sprinter hybrids in both France and the USA have resulted in cuts in fuel usage of 40 per cent and 36 per cent respectively, says Mercedes. Useful reductions in CO2 emissions are promised by a fleet of ten diesel/electric hybrid Iveco Daily vans now in service in Italy with FedEx Express.
Hybrid commercials have the drawbacks of technical complication and price. They're significantly more expensive than conventional vans and given that precious few are being built in volume at present they are not widely available.
Payload loss is another issue thanks to those batteries, although the petrol Sprinter hybrid offers a still-respectable 1,600kg. Hybrids do, however, have the advantage that they can be refuelled at any service station.
Service stations do not, however, dispense hydrogen; a required ingredient if your van is equipped with a fuel cell. It's an electrochemical device that combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity to drive an electric motor, with water and heat as by-products.
While that makes it environmentally acceptable, the lack of a hydrogen refuelling infrastructure is a major stumbling block. Furthermore the technology is expensive, and a volume production fuel cell van is still some years away.
Last year's Amsterdam Commercial Vehicle Show saw the appearance of a Mitsubishi Fuso Canter 7.5-tonner fitted with a power pack that includes fuel cells, lithium-ion batteries and hub-mounted electric motors in the rear wheels. It's a special conversion courtesy of Hytruck of the Netherlands.
Drawing hydrogen from a tank holding 200 litres of hydrogen at a pressure of 350 bar positioned between the longitudinal chassis members, the fuel cells funnel power to the batteries that drive the electric motors. Regenerative braking makes sure the batteries get a bit of a boost every time the driver slams on the anchors.
Not all alternative fuels are as popular as they once were and one that's been repeatedly pilloried over the past few months is biodiesel.
Much of it is produced from industrial crops and the claim is that they are being grown in fields that should be used to produce food instead. Food prices are rising as a consequence contend biodiesel's critics.
A review carried out by Professor Ed Gallagher, chairman of the Renewable Fuels Agency, has called for the introduction of biofuels to be slowed to mitigate the effect they are having on food bills. In response, the government has announced proposals to delay the implementation of a requirement for biofuels to make up five per cent of road transport fuel from 2010/11 to 2013/14.
Secretary of State for Transport, Ruth Kelly, has also called for a review of the progress being made on the sustainability of biofuels to be carried out in 2011/12.
But is biodiesel truly responsible for the way in which Mr & Mrs Average's weekly shopping bill has soared? It may have made a contribution, but so have the Australian drought and the collapse of farming in Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of Africa.
It's also worth noting that some biodiesel is made from a plant called jatropha. It happily thrives on marginal land that is unsuitable for the production of foodstuffs and requires little input in terms of water, fertiliser and pesticides.
Not all biodiesel is made from crops anyway. Argent Energy, for instance, produces it from waste products such as tallow and used cooking oil.
Making diesel out of the latter product has an understandable appeal to some operators. The London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames plans to run its vans on biodiesel made from recycled cooking oil from September onwards.
Biodiesel's environmental plus-points include a cut in the output of particulates and carbon monoxide and a potential reduction in CO2 output too. In most cases it is blended with conventional diesel, with some vans capable of running on a mixture containing up to 30 per cent biodiesel without needing any modification.
Where modifications are required they usually involve the changing of various seals and the installation of a fuel filter that includes a water trap. That's because biodiesel is hydroscopic. In other words, it attracts water.
Running on a strong biodiesel mix may also result in shorter service intervals. Biodiesel also has a lower calorific value — contains less energy per litre in other words — than standard diesel. That is likely to affect your mpg figures if you run on a 100 per cent mix.
However that has not been the experience of all users, particularly those running on lower-strength mixtures.
Biodiesel does not at present have any price advantage over ordinary diesel, alas. The difference per litre is minimal.
After a period in the doldrums gaseous fuels — compressed natural gas (cng) and liquefied petroleum gas (lpg) — may be about to enjoy a new lease of life.
Volkswagen is energetically pushing cng while Citroën has just launched a dual-fuel Nemo X 1.4i that will run on either petrol or lpg.
Exempt from the iniquitous London congestion tax, it's converted in the UK by Nicholson McLaren and prices start at a not-out-of-the-way £8,820 plus VAT. The 53-litre lpg tank is mounted in place of the spare wheel. A dual-fuel petrol/lpg Berlingo First is available too.
At the time of writing lpg was approximately half the price of petrol and around 40 per cent of the cost of diesel. A comparatively low energy content means that you will burn 30 per cent more lpg than you would petrol to travel a given distance, but the cost equation still works in lpg's favour.
Lpg also has a good story to tell in terms of lower CO2 and NOx (nitrous oxide) emissions and virtually no emissions of particulates.
Remember, however, that if a gaseous fuel becomes too popular, the government will ultimately jack-up the duty and make it uncompetitive. That's the policy that governments of whatever political hue inevitably pursue — to the van operator's detriment.
Hybrids? Compressed natural gas? Battery power? Biodiesel? Making what turns out to be the wrong choice is bad enough if you're self-employed with only one van. It can turn into a huge and publicly-embarrassing headache if you happen to be a major public company with a vast fleet of light commercials.
It's a puzzle that Dino Papas has got to solve, however. He's fleet and equipment manager at Tesco.com which operates 2,000 vehicles delivering groceries and other items on behalf of the supermarket giant to households nationwide.
“We employ 6,000 drivers who now look after over 1m customers,” he says. “Most of our vehicles are diesel Mercedes-Benz Sprinters and on average they handle 40 drops a day each.”
Recent acquisitions, however, include 15 zero-emission battery-powered Modecs and Papas is contemplating acquiring battery-powered vans from Smith Electric Vehicles too.
“Range between battery recharges is an issue though,” he says. “So is the need for stores to have suitable charging facilities.”
This restricts operational flexibility because it means the Modecs cannot be switched to a store that does not have the ability to charge them up.
“Weight is an issue too,” Papas adds. Because the vehicles gross at above 3.5 tonnes the drivers have to have the appropriate licence entitlement. While car drivers who passed their test before 1 January 1997 do, those who passed it after that date do not, and have to take a separate test to obtain it.
On balance, though, he's a fan of deploying electric vans in situations where their range limitations are unlikely to be a constraint.
“Operationally they make things more complex, but at present the business case for running them wherever possible looks good given rising fuel prices,” he says.
They're a lot more expensive to acquire than their diesel counterparts, but the pence-per-mile bill for powering them is significantly lower, they cost 50 per cent less to maintain Papas reckons and they're not subject to Vehicle Excise Duty. Nor are they subject to the London congestion tax.
In addition he's running a number of Ford Transits equipped with hybrid technology sourced from Connaught, but to date the experience has not been an entirely happy one. The problem lies, not with Connaught, but with the semi-automatic gearboxes the old-style Transits are fitted with, so he's hoping that Connaught will be installing its hybrid package in a Sprinter soon.
Assessing the merits of compressed natural gas (cng) is certainly on his agenda. It would not be surprising if he trialled a few right-hand drive cng Sprinters when they start appearing in the UK next year. “However, we'll have to be alert to any impact on payload capacity,” he says.
“We've never had vans powered by liquefied petroleum gas though and I don't think we will,” he continues. “Nor do we have any plans to introduce biodiesel.”
He's interested in acquiring Sprinters fitted with ECO Start, but there's a snag. Tesco.com is gradually switching to Sprinters with automatic gearboxes and ECO Start is available solely on manuals.
He's also concerned by another potential drawback. The vast majority of Tesco.com's light commercials are equipped with engine-driven fridge units. Killing the engine every time you're halted at traffic lights or stuck in a traffic queue could have implications for temperature maintenance, he fears.
He is considering the merits of having electric fridges installed instead. Refrigeration for the Modecs is provided by eutectic plates. They're not engine- driven, but they are heavy; possibly too heavy for smaller vehicles, Papas suspects.
As well as looking at different automotive technologies there are all sorts of other measures that Tesco.com is taking to reduce its carbon footprint. On thing it is doing is governing its vehicles to 58mph; a step that should improve road safety and lessen the risk of drivers getting speeding tickets, as well as saving fuel.
There is currently a great deal of uncertainty in the market with respect to which way to go with alternative fuels. Manufacturers and operators are holding off making a decision as they have been burnt in the past thanks to governmental ineptitude — the debacle of Powershift and lpg conversion grants, for example — but there is no doubt that fossil fuel-based engines have a limited life span.