You will likely have stumbled across Mitie’s services at some point – knowingly or not. It is among the UK’s largest utility companies, with services spanning engineering, cleaning and security, to landscaping, decarbonisation projects and waste reduction. 

Little wonder, then, that its permanent fleet totals 7,200 vehicles, around 70% of which are commercials, the bulk of them vans. Small and medium units – think Renault Kangoo/Peugeot Partner and Ford Transit/Vauxhall Vivaro – account for about 80% of its LCVs, while the remaining 20% is specialist gear, such as 4x4s, tippers and dropsides. Tractors and gritters make up some of the heavier equipment. 

The thought of converting that lot to electric is enough to make even the most die-hard of EV advocates scratch their heads, but if we told you the company launched what it claims is the UK’s first electric gritting service in February 2021, with a vehicle affectionately known as Gritter Thunberg, you can see where it’s coming from. 

It began adopting EVs with gusto around two-and-a-half years ago, currently has more than 1,600 and plans to have the full 7,200 on electric power by 2025. 

“June 2019 was when the first real tranche rolled out,” director of sustainability and social value, Simon King, tells What Van?, “we had about 25 or so on the fleet before that, across all the different applications, so we’ve grown quite a lot, quite rapidly, and we’re rolling out vehicles at a rate of about 25 a week. We’ll basically keep doing that to get to our target.”

The firm claims to be on track to meet its mid-decade deadline, even with the uphill issue that is vehicle supply, King’s tactic for which has been bulk ordering. 

“Certainly, when we started, it was a real challenge, and one of the things that we’ve done to go as far and as fast as we have is to bulk order vehicles. We were often ordering 50, 100 even 150 at a time from the manufacturers, so they had certainty of supply and we could secure them.”

As for deploying EVs, the first stop is identifying employees that can easily adopt them. “It’s understanding who can have home charge points installed and prioritising them to switch,” says King, “if you can charge the vehicle where it sleeps, that’s the optimal way to operate an EV and, not all, but most of our vehicles are home-based. 

“We’ve developed, with some partners, a mechanism for paying for that electricity directly, so the employees don’t have to pay for it and claim it back. That means those vehicles can then be used, in most cases, quite effectively.” 

One of the trickier aspects of electrifying a fleet such as Mitie’s is the unpredictability of what and where the vehicles will be doing and going. As King explains, it is more difficult for companies with reactive operations than for those which deviate little from their set routes. 

“I think the challenge fleets such as Centrica, Mitie and BT Openreach have is that it’s not necessarily a planned delivery route. Certainly, they don’t know exactly what mileage they are going to be doing each day. You may plan a day’s work, but then there will be reactive jobs that come in, and clients’ requirements change or an urgent breakdown happens. You need that higher [range] to be able to handle that and, because our fleet happens to be home-based – the employee will start from home in the morning and go to the first job from there – that has an impact on the mileage you need.”

It’s something that has, to a point, put the brakes on larger electric vans for Mitie and its contemporaries. Heftier LCVs with sufficient space, payload and range have been scarce in comparison to small and medium equivalents.  

However, the company recently made inroads with larger vans when it added a Vauxhall Vivaro-e to its fleet in April – one of an order of more than 600. It admits that, until recently, there was “no viable alternative for our large diesel vans with an adequate range to manage the heavy loads often carried by mobile engineering teams”, but the combination of the Vivaro’s longer range and lightweight fittings in the loadbay paved the way for a bigger plug-in van to enter service. 

The biggest obstacle to widespread EV adoption, according to King, is the lacking of and convoluted public infrastructure for drivers who cannot charge at home. The firm has installed charging facilities at its premises and at clients’ sites, but he points out that 45% of its employees who drive commercial vehicles cannot have charge points installed at their homes, chiefly because they live in the likes of flats. 

He believes the main issue in such circumstances is that drivers need “a wallet full of cards” to access the public charging network, due to the vast number of operators and payment methods. “At the moment there are huge numbers of different charge point operators and networks,” he says.  

“All new charge points have to have contactless payment but, from a fleet point of view, that doesn’t solve the problem, because you don’t get any data about what the card’s being used for – which is so crucial for running a fleet effectively. You just have to hand out a large number of contactless cards to employees and say, ‘use these to charge your vehicle’. We need aggregation.”

King is calling for the UK to adopt a payment model similar to the roaming system used by mobile phone operators, whereby customers travelling abroad can automatically connect to an available network. “I don’t think there’s any problem with charge point operators competing… but they should have to provide access to those networks through either one or a small number of solutions.”

“Other countries have that in place – roaming capability is a requirement. It’s not dissimilar to the mobile phone market of many years ago, where you were locked to only one network and, if you went overseas, you had this huge cost. The market was changed so that, if you went abroad, you could either pay for a travel pack or you got it as part of your deal. All told, I think that’s perfectly feasible.”

King also believes the government’s current focus on establishing fast chargers on major roads does little to assist those who do not have a home facility. 

“Most of the investment and focus is on rapid charging and putting chargers on the Strategic Road Network – motorways and A roads. Actually, what we need to do is make sure there are charging points on the street.”

He concedes that around a quarter of local authorities have invested in street charge points but, citing electric cars alone, he claims that falls short of the numbers required based on sales figures.  

“There’s been some good progress – 4,000 charging points have been installed across 105 local authorities, which is great – but there are 408 local authorities across the UK. 

“Last year 100,000 or so pure-electric vehicles were sold. If you draw a straight line from 100,000 to 2.3 million – the number of cars sold in a normal year – over a 10-year period, you’re talking about an extra 220,000 per year. 

“If you assume one third of those are not going to have off-street charging, you get some pretty big numbers pretty quickly.”