Niels Arentzen and Peggy O’Neill-Vivanco
When University of Vermont (UVM) Business student Niels Arentzen was in high school, he operated a lawn care business, and explored the possibility of starting a commercial electric mowing company
. His research into the technology highlighted the emissions and fuel savings, as well as noise reduction, but the upfront costs were too high for his small-scale operation. He didn’t give up on the idea of electrified lawn care equipment, and once on UVM’s campus, he realized that UVM could make the transition to electric mowing. The University needs to have the grounds cut sharp, in an efficient and timely manner, all while classes are going on, and students, staff and faculty are living, learning, working and playing in and around the grounds. Complaints about the noise and emissions from lawn equipment often mean that the grounds-keeping crew must adjust its schedules around building occupancy, exam schedules and quiet hours around residential buildings. This was the perfect setting to pilot electric lawn equipment.
In January 2020, Niels reached out to Peggy O’Neill-Vivanco, the Coordinator for Vermont Clean Cities Coalition at UVM’s Transportation Research Center. Together they wrote a proposal to UVM’s Clean Energy Fund (now called the Sustainable Campus Fund), to pilot a 60-inch zero-turn (ZTR) electric lawn mower. To support the pilot proposal, Niels got over 500 signatures from students and faculty on a petition for the need to switch from fossil fuel-powered lawn equipment to electrical equipment. Many signed because of the noise levels and pollution of conventional equipment, which can disrupt learning. The pilot supported the Clean Energy Fund’s goals and the University’s Climate Action Plan by working to reduce fossil fuel use on campus. Replacing fossil fuel-powered mowers with e-mowers that use 100% renewably-sourced electricity will help UVM reach its commitments to climate neutrality by 2025. According to an EPA study, a 24 horse-power commercial ZTR mower, similar to the ones used by UVM, running for an hour is equal to 88 cars driving at 55 MPH or 4,840 vehicle miles traveled in terms of emissions. In contrast, operating one 60-inch commercial electric mower for 400 hours annually produces zero emissions, versus the nearly 8,000 lbs. of CO2 produced by a comparable conventional commercial mower.
The goal of the project was to evaluate the efficacy of an e-mower for UVM’s lawn care needs. While the pandemic delayed the pilot’s rollout, the mower was finally purchased and put into use at UVM during late summer 2021. It was in use for 150 hours of mowing during the 2021 season and resulted in 7582 kWh of energy used; saved 225 gallons of gasoline and over $731 dollars on fuel; reduced noise pollution from 100 decibels to 85 decibels; and prevented over 2,000 lbs. of CO2 emissions. (The sound-pressure scale in decibels is logarithmic, making this sound reduction very significant.) University students, employees, and visitors reap the health benefits of breathing less-polluted air during the mowing months of the summer and fall. Additionally, students, faculty, and staff were spared having to compete with the sounds of noisy conventional mowers outside their classrooms and offices, making for a better and more comfortable learning environment.
This success, and the positive feedback from the Grounds crew on the efficiency and operating of the electric lawn mower led Matt Walker, Grounds Manager at the Physical Plant Department (PPD), to propose additional funding for electric chore tools – push mowers, trimmers and leaf blowers – for campus crews to use. Building off the electric lawn mower pilot, and with support from Vermont Clean Cities Coalition, Matt’s 2022 proposal to the Sustainable Campus Fund seeks to support the purchase of electric lawn tools to help PPD decarbonize a significant portion of its landscaping tools. In addition to reducing carbon emissions, the electric leaf blowers will comply with the new City of Burlington noise ordinance and will not exceed the noise level of 65 decibels. Again, equipment electrification will have a direct and positive impact on campus climate by improving students’ learning and health by reducing localized air pollution, noise pollution and greenhouse gas emissions around residential and academic buildings.
These projects highlight great collaboration between a UVM student and the Grounds Department. Niels was able to communicate well with the Grounds crew because he had owned his own lawn care company, knew the machines, and understood what it was like to mow all day. This isn’t to say that there was a seamless and easy conversion by the crew to the e-mower, but support from the Grounds Department leadership made an easier path for the pilot to take place, and the crew to be part of an exciting electrification project.
Peggy O’Neill-Vivanco conducts program outreach and coordination at the Transportation Research Center at the University of Vermont. She is the coordinator of the Vermont Clean Cities Coalition where she brings together stakeholders in the public and private sectors to provide assistance to fleets implementing alternative fuels, advanced fuel vehicles and transportation efficiencies. She is the Vice-Chair of the Burlington Public Works Commission. Peggy holds an MA from New York University. She is a year-round bike commuter, and advocate for safe bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure for all users.
Niels Arentzen studies Finance and Art at UVM and will graduate in May 2022. He can often be found in the lake or in the mountains. He looks forward to continuing his work with sustainability on the supply chain team at Beta Technologies and through impact investing at the Hula Fund.