Electric vans: the future of light commercial vehicles?

So far, the vast majority of electric vehicles to have come onto our roads have been cars. But, with battery capacity growing and efficiency improving, electricity is becoming a more realistic fuel for vans as well. And, as new policies come in to disincentive diesels, more and more drivers and fleets are turning to electric light commercial vehicles.

The rise of electric vans

According to the latest figures from the Department for Transport, there were 6,348 ultra-low emission vans in the UK at the end of September – a 60% increase since September 2014. As the graph below shows, that increase is due to a surge in the number of plug-in electric vans, from just 903 three years ago to 3,656 now. And our survey of fleet professionals for Hitachi Capital’s new Future of Fuel report found that 9% of fleets now contain electric vans.

 Of course, there’s still a long way to go before electric vans are the norm. Those 3,656 plug-in vans represent just 0.1% of all light commercial vehicles on Britain’s roads, and only 0.4% of new van registrations are electric.

Incentives for electric vans

The Government has introduced a number of policies to help those percentages grow.

The most obvious example is the Plug-in Van Grant, which has been available since 2012. This gives buyers 20% off the cost of a plug-in electric van, up to a maximum of £8,000. The Department for Transport currently lists nine models of van that are eligible for the grant, including the Citroen Berlingo Electric and the Peugeot Partner Electric. Both of these can do 106 miles on a single charge.

As well as benefiting from the Plug-in Van Grant, electric vans are also exempt from Vehicle Excise Duty, saving their owners £240 a year compared to most petrol or diesel vans, and from London’s Congestion Charge.

Regulatory changes on the way?

One thing that may have been standing in the way of some fleets switching to electric vans is weight. An electric powertrain weighs more than the usual diesel engine, which means that an electric van with a maximum weight of 3,500kg can carry less cargo than a diesel one. That really matters, given that a category B driving licence-holder can only drive a van with a maximum weight of up to 3,500kg.

In the summer, the Government therefore brought forward proposals to increase the weight limit for category B licence-holders to 4,250kg for alternatively-fuelled vans only. The consultation on these proposals closed in October, but the Government hasn’t announced its final decision yet. Still, it seems likely that this change – or something very similar – will be confirmed in the not-too-distant future.

How we helped British Gas go electric

Some fleets in particular are blazing the trail towards our electric future. In our Future of Fuel report, we describe how Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions helped British Gas to test the potential of electric vans using ten specially-modified prototypes from Nissan.