Oxford County took an innovative step towards electrification when it commissioned two specially built hybrid ambulances. Now it’s adding more and inspiring others to follow suit
When Oxford County in southwestern Ontario set a goal in 2015 of using 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, ambulances might not have been one of the obvious places to start. But now, less than two years after the county introduced a pair of hybrid ambulances developed in conjunction with Crestline Coach Ltd., of Saskatoon, it is on track to have seven hybrids in a 14-ambulance fleet by the end of 2019. Oxford’s experience is also helping inspire rollouts of hybrid ambulances in British Columbia, Toronto and elsewhere.
It’s not just the ambulances’ critical life-saving role that makes shifting from conventional all-diesel versions a challenge. They also have greater power requirements than other vehicles. Everyone can hear and see the siren and flashing lights but inside, there’s medical equipment — such as a defibrillator and a suction unit, which clears airways and allows patients to breathe — and a power stretcher and loading system. In addition, paramedics need good lighting, and the interior temperature needs to stay within an acceptable range for patient comfort and safety and the proper storage of medications.
Oxford’s pioneering journey began in 2017, when chief of Paramedic Services Ben Addley — eager to support the county’s green initiative — took an electric ambulance proposal to council. With no such vehicles on the market, Addley approached Crestline, the county’s existing ambulance supplier, to see if it would be willing to work on developing one. The company agreed, and the result was Crestline’s Fleetmax XL3 hybrid ambulance.
While hybrid electric technology was the only suitable option, it also meant the county didn’t have the additional expense of installing charging equipment in its operating bases right away. “We wanted to try this technology as an interim measure and demonstrate to the vendors that we were interested in moving toward a whole electric solution,” says Stephen Edwards, Oxford’s deputy chief of Paramedic Services. “Somebody’s got to go first and we’re happy to lead the way.”
Software and solar panels
The new ambulance’s primary fuel savings, as with all hybrids, come from its regenerative braking system feeding power to a battery that offsets the diesel engine. In addition, since ambulances are normally left to idle during calls to ensure equipment stays charged and to maintain the compartment’s temperature, Crestline installed ECO-Run, software developed by FernoAcetech that shuts off the engine while idling. This saves fuel and cuts emissions while drawing energy from a secondary battery to power the equipment and maintain temperature. If more power is needed, the software restarts the engine. The ambulances also have solar panels on the roof to assist in powering the medical equipment and the second battery.
At first, the paramedics who drive the ambulances were a little unsure about the move to hybrids. But Addley says they’ve barely noticed a difference. The regenerative breaking does mean that when they first take their foot off the gas, the ambulance slows down even before they’ve applied the brake. They also notice the electric assist when they accelerate. “I think we had some skeptics in the workforce, but all in all the feedback has been very good,” he says. “If they think they can do their job the same as the before, they’re happy.”
The ambulances cost $175,000 each, $35,000 more standard gas or diesel ones. Addley knew the county would not get full return on that investment, partly because the department sells ambulances after six years. Recouping three-quarters of the extra cost may be feasible and he hopes the vehicles will fetch a higher resale price.
But Oxford didn’t make the purchases for purely economic reasons. This is still a pilot project and so far, the county is saving 18 to 20 percent on fuel consumption with a similar reduction in CO2 emissions, slightly below the projected 23 or 24 percent reduction. The difference may have to do with where Oxford has used the ambulances. Much of the county is rural, where the trips are longer and there’s more highway driving. But there are also some urban areas, including the city of Woodstock, where the runs are shorter with a lot of starting and stopping. Recently, the department began isolating the hybrid ambulances in the rural areas; later, it will put them in the cities and towns. The hypothesis is the regenerative braking system will mean better fuel consumption in urban areas.
While the results have been slightly lower than expected, Addley had no hesitation in ordering two more hybrid ambulances in 2018 and another three this year. When those arrive, seven of the county’s 14 ambulances, and one of its smaller response units, will be hybrid electrics. The ultimate goal is to adopt fully electric vehicles and he guesses they’ll be available within five years.
Addley’s enthusiasm for the project is evident. He’s also proud that bigger services with large fleets are joining in. British Columbia Emergency Health Services, which also partnered with Oxford on a fuel-consumption comparison study, now has its first hybrid ambulance operating in Burnaby and nine more on order from Crestline. “Patients can know it’s a safe, reliable and greener solution to deliver pre-hospital care,” says Shannon Miller, a BCEHS spokesperson, noting that the hybrids allow the service to cut fuel use and lower carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, Toronto Paramedic Services now has 11 hybrids in a fleet of 220 ambulances. A local Chevrolet dealer did the conversions and TPS has applied for a federal grant for an additional 104 conversion kits, according to TPS commander Ralph Hole.
“Innovation is one thing,” Addley has told his team, “but it’s true innovation when you see others following suit.”