Long read

Is an electric fleet worth it?

By William Dodds

- Last updated on GMT

Riverford currently operates 65 electric vans and plans to reach 240 by 2050. Credit: Riverford
Riverford currently operates 65 electric vans and plans to reach 240 by 2050. Credit: Riverford

Related tags Sustainability Logistics

As lowering emissions becomes an ever-more important goal for the food and drink sector, Food Manufacture speaks to Devon-based fruit and veg brand Riverford about how it approached electrified delivery and the perks of EVs.

Sustainability is a huge concern for food and drink manufacturers, with countless initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and tackle waste announced by businesses throughout the industry on a weekly basis.

As Food Forensics director Alison Johnson argued in a recent column for Food Manufacture, environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns are now of crucial importance to companies in food and drink and require active engagement and investment from people at all levels in an organisation​. Meanwhile, the Government has set a target of 2050 for the UK economy to reach Net Zero, which places additional pressure on all firms to look at their own impact.

One way that Devon-based fruit and vegetable delivery company Riverford is looking at reducing its carbon footprint is through the transition to electric vehicles (EVs). The organisation aims to conduct 100% electric deliveries by 2025, a significant commitment given that Riverford distributes around 70,000 fruit and veg boxes across the country every week.

Founded in 1987, Riverford started out by simply delivering organic vegetables to 30 local houses in Devon, but it has grown rapidly since. Now owned by its employees, the firm uses compostable materials to manufacture its packaging, while its delivery boxes can be used up to 10 times before being recycled.

The firm first began using EVs in 2015, before starting its transition towards fully electric deliveries in 2020 with the launch of an EV fleet in Bristol. The fruit and vegetable producer anticipates it’ll be operating around 240 EVs once the process is complete.

Last month (July 2023), Riverford partnered with fleet management platform Webfleet in order to take advantage of the tech firm’s EV solutions. Webfleet’s software allows Riverford to track vehicle location, battery health, remaining driving range and real-time energy consumption for its 65 electric delivery vans through a centralised platform.

Managing an electric fleet

Reflecting on recent sustainability efforts, fleet manager, James Welton, said that the organisation’s transition towards fully electric deliveries has had benefits for both the business and its customers.

While the [electric] vehicles may be expensive in the initial outlay, this is recouped over time with savings on fuel and maintenance​,” Welton told Food Manufacture.

“The electric vehicles we have on fleet have unlimited mileage, with yearly servicing, meaning less trips to the garage​. [Additionally] the electric vehicles mean quieter, cleaner streets for the areas we operate in.”

Riverford announced the link up with Webfleet in July and hopes that access to its vehicle management tool can make managing deliveries easier and allow team members to focus on other aspects of the business.

Webfleet provides a simple user-friendly platform for looking at vehicle management, tracking and electrification​,” Welton continued.

The reports provided give deeper, data-based insight into areas like driving styles, which means it is easy for managers to help co-owners improve things like fuel efficient driving​.”

More than 60,000 businesses across the world use Webfleet’s solution to improve the efficiency of their fleets and remain compliant with regulations; and regional manager Beverley Wise said that the software provider was now keen to support Riverford on its “electrification journey​”.

Elaborating, Wise said: “Delivery operations can then be optimised with route planning tools taking account of vehicle battery levels, capacity, energy consumption, remaining driving ranges and charge point locations.

“Cost savings can be realised with reports that allow fleets to identify inefficiencies, by comparing vehicles’ energy performance, for example, or by analysing kinetic energy recovered through regenerative braking.”

Taking the EV leap

The apprehension surrounding change is often rooted in a fear of new systems going wrong or costing additional money. With budgets tight at the moment and global economic uncertainty persisting, living up to a commitment like electrifying a delivery fleet can be daunting.

However, Wise believes that the move towards EVs is now a “one-way journey​” and with the Government committed to its Net Zero targets, businesses need to get on-board.

Electric transport has to be embraced, whether today or tomorrow​,” Wise emphasised.

Failing to plan means planning to fail. Clean air and low emission zones have been rolled out across UK cities and the Government has confirmed that the sale of new internal combustion engine vans will be banned from 2030. An end date of 2035 has been set for the sale of new internal combustion HGVs weighing 26 tonnes and under, while all new HGVs will be zero-emission by 2040.”

Both Riverford and Webfleet also highlighted the potential cost savings attached to switching to EVs, even if the initial outlay can be sizeable.

There is also an increasingly compelling financial case for making the switch​,” Wise added. “With careful planning and access to meaningful management information, EVs can result in cost savings over the fleet lifecycle.

“When total cost of ownership modelling is employed, the cost of procuring, operating and maintaining EVs can prove lower than like-for-like internal combustion models.”

When it comes to maintaining a quality service, Welton believes that Riverford’s switch to EVs has not had a tangible negative impact. While certain routes had to change initially, this has not proved an issue in the long run, and the firm hopes that Webfleet’s services can help it find new solutions in the future.

There is also the benefit of renewing the fleet at a pace faster than usual, so lots of our drivers are in brand new vans for the first time, with added driver convenience and safety technology​,” said Welton.

“[Webfleet’s software] makes it easy to recognise drivers who are consistently performing at or above the targets. For the business, it has given us insight into our compliance with on road behaviour, and helps with visibility of EV statistics like route mileage and charge status​.”

Riverford believes that this new partnership will make its 2025 full electrification plan a step closer, while its experience can provide a useful test case for other food and drink manufacturers yet to make the shift towards EVs.

With restrictions on combustion vans now on the horizon, the transition to electric solutions is not a trend that businesses can shy away from any longer.

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