Date June 29, 2023
Media Contact

Brown makes strides toward fully electrifying its vehicles, groundskeeping equipment

As the University works toward achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, decreasing air and noise pollution is part of Brown’s broader commitment to sustainability.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On a sunny spring morning, Brown University’s Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle buzzed with activity as staff from Facilities Management mowed the grass, trimmed bushes and used a leaf blower — but distinctly absent was the telltale din and fumes generated by the landscaping equipment.

In a reminiscent scene across College Hill, two Brown plumbers loaded a Ford E-Transit electric van at Brown’s Facilities Management building behind the Erickson Athletic Complex as they prepared to drive in near-silence to tend to maintenance work on campus — no exhaust, and no fuel stops required.

Both scenes are illustrative of a marked shift at the University. As part of a sweeping commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2040 and abate local noise and air pollution, Brown is transitioning from gas-powered to electric equipment. The efforts have been bolstered by a new Fleet Vehicle Purchasing Policy adopted in March 2022, requiring that all new University vehicle purchases must be electric or plug-in hybrid electric.

The changes to the University’s facilities equipment and infrastructure are part of a set of ambitious actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and minimize Brown’s energy footprint while also reducing noise and air pollution on campus, according to Jessica Berry, assistant vice president of sustainability and resiliency at Brown.

“It’s especially important that Brown is positioning itself at the forefront of climate solutions,” Berry said. “We’re living in one of the most critical times in human history and this is one of the ways we can help solve our climate crisis.”

The commitment to electrifying the University’s entire fleet of 123 vehicles is a key step toward meeting Brown’s sustainability goals, given that internal-combustion engines are the planet’s single largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, Berry noted. Not only that, they’re also a leading cause of global noise pollution, which also impacts community health.

“These are concrete actions that the University is taking to address the global climate crisis — and safeguard human health as well,” Berry said.

As early as 2015, the University began converting its gas-powered grounds equipment, starting with an electric Zamboni for resurfacing the Meehan Auditorium ice rink at Brown’s athletic complex.

Today, 95% of Brown’s hand-held maintenance equipment is electric, according to Grounds Superintendent Nicholas Mol. That includes more than 40 pieces of equipment such as string trimmers, backpack leaf blowers, handheld blowers, hedge trimmers, pole saws and push mowers — plus one ride-on mower and two Zambonis.

“As equipment needs replacing, our priority is to replace it with lithium ion,” Mol said, referencing the rechargeable batteries that power the new electric devices.

Over time, the shift toward all-electric will profoundly alter the acoustic texture of campus life. That’s something Groundsworker Robert Farizer is already experiencing as he uses the cleaner, quieter equipment.

“I’ve gotten compliments,” said Farizer, who has worked at Brown for 20 years and oversees groundskeeping on Simmons Quad. “A lot of people come up to me. I’ve had people tell me they really appreciate it, especially faculty — and neighbors too.”

Groundsworker Eric Halpern said he feels a positive impact personally.

“The huge advantage with the electric equipment is that you don’t get the fumes from gas,” Halpern said, adding that electric equipment is also more versatile. For example, if Meehan Auditorium is tightly scheduled with back-to-back games, an electric blower can be used indoors to help clean up left-behind food packaging in the stands, between games — which wouldn’t be safe or feasible with gas-powered equipment.

The only limitation for the groundsworkers is battery life, they say. The equipment doesn’t last as long on one charged battery as it would on a tank of gas. They’ve adapted by purchasing additional batteries and setting up charging stations so the maintenance staff can swap in new batteries as needed.

It’s especially important that Brown is positioning itself at the forefront of climate solutions. We’re living in one of the most critical times in human history and this is one of the ways we can help solve our climate crisis.

Jessica Berry Assistant Vice President of Sustainability and Resiliency at Brown
Jessica Berry poses for a photo on the Brown campus

Mol, the grounds superintendent, praised the Facilities Management staff for their adaptability to embrace new systems and offer valuable feedback as the University continues to invest in clean technology and seeks electric equipment that supports daily, sustained use.

“This is a really good crew with a lot of passion for their job,” Mol said. “They’ve been willing to try new equipment and they always share their opinions, which is great because they’re the ones who operate it.”

Electrifying Brown’s vehicle fleet

Similarly, the staff who are operating the University’s five new electric vehicles hail the reduced noise and air pollution, as well as improved safety features such as better back-up cameras, lane-correction and other alerts.

The Brown Bookstore took delivery of a Ford E-Transit in March 2023. On one recent afternoon, Luis Gonzalez, the bookstore’s assistant store manager of operations, and Kennedy Arias, the stockroom/warehouse coordinator, loaded the van with books and noted that it’s roomier than the old conventional van and requires fewer trip to transport the same amount of materials.

“It’s got a lot of safety mechanisms in it,” Gonzalez said. “You can’t even hear it, it’s so quiet.”

“It’s more comfortable,” Arias added. “When you start it, you don’t know it’s on,” he said with a laugh.

To aid in the transition to electric vehicles, the Fleet Vehicle Purchasing Policy was coupled with funding to assist Brown departments in covering the cost differential between EVs and conventional vehicles.

The policy requires that “all new University vehicle purchases must be electric or plug-in hybrid electric unless a compelling case can be made for an exemption.” It also notes the myriad benefits of electric vehicles, including lower maintenance and operating costs, and most importantly, energy efficiency and reduced emissions.

And because Brown sources its electricity from renewable sources, the new electric vehicles have net-zero emissions, Berry noted.

Brown’s first five electric vehicles were put into service by the Department of Public Safety, the University Library, Facilities Management and the Brown Bookstore. The University is on track to replace another three to four gas-powered vehicles with fully electric vehicles over the next year, according to Fleet Manager Matthew Force.

As part of its investment in supporting electric vehicle technology, Brown has installed five campus charging stations with 13 ports for the University-owned EV fleet. Additionally, to improve EV infrastructure more broadly, Brown installed six commercial charging stations with 20 ports on campus, where drivers can plug in their cars.

“Change can be difficult, but I believe it’s been really positive,” said Marco Martins, manager of stores operations for Facilities Management, which has two new Ford E-Transits. “The staff are accepting it well. It’s better than having to monitor your gas and go to the gas stations. And the technology is dramatically improved.”