Overcoming the Cultural and Institutional Barriers to Adopting Commercial Electric Lawn Care Equipment in Vermont

Steven Wisbaum, Eco-Equipment Supply

Advancements in lithium ion battery technology have allowed electric lawn care equipment to become a practical and cost-effective alternative to gas/diesel-powered lawn care equipment in terms of both performance and run-time for many applications.  There’s also widespread agreement that Vermonters should be doing everything possible to reduce GHG emissions.  Yet, in spite of these technological advancements and the State’s ambitious GHG reduction goals, not one of Vermont’s municipalities, colleges or universities, public schools, and only one state agency (the Vermont Department of Forestry, Parks, and Recreation) is using a commercial electric lawn mower as of December 2019.

While this document focuses on the various institutional and cultural barriers that are impeding the adoption of electric lawn care equipment, it’s likely that similar barriers are impeding the adoption of other “transition technologies” by Vermont businesses, institutions, and local and government agencies/departments.  Therefore, many of the suggestions offered for overcoming these barriers would likely apply to other transition technologies as well:

  1. Minimal experience with commercial electric lawn mowers:   Although there are thousands of commercial electric lawn mowers operating throughout the US, to-date there’s only about fifteen being operated in Vermont, so relatively few Vermonters are familiar with this technology. This barrier will be overcome simply as more electric mowers are operating around the state. 
  2. Resistance to change coupled with a bias against commercial electric lawn mowers by equipment operators:  It’s part of human nature to resist change. And although many Vermont individuals, businesses, institutions, municipalities, and the state government agencies/departments have environmental policy goals that would seem to support the transition to electric lawn mowers, for a variety of reasons many equipment operators assume that electric mowers won’t perform as well as conventional mowers and resist this transition. These reasons include:
    1. If someone assumes a louder machine has MORE power, than they probably also assume that a quieter machine has LESS power.
    2. In a classic example of “perfection being the enemy of the good”, since electric mowers may not yet be available with a particular feature or option (e.g. a leaf collection system), such differences can be used as a reason, or excuse to not buy one.
    3. Electric mowers have different operation and maintenance requirements. For example, rather than simply being refueled, electric mowers have a maximum possible run-time based on the number and size of the batteries and need to be plugged into a charger at the end of the day.
    4. While it’s considered standard operation procedure with any lawn mower to clean out the grass from inside the cutting decks and to keep the blades sharp, this is especially important with electric mowers to ensure optimum performance and run-time.

This resistance can be overcome by ensuring that multiple community members are involved in the process, by obtaining independent reviews of the equipment being considered, and scheduling equipment demos that are also attended by multiple community members.  And since advancements/improvements are continually being made in both the performance, options and run-time of electric lawn care equipment, it’s important that the evaluation process is based on the most recent model years.

  1. Performance reviews that are inaccurate and negative: Since there are so few commercial electric lawn mowers operating in Vermont, there exists the potential for a couple of negative reviews to have an oversized impact on the general perception of this technology.  Such negative reviews could be based on the performance of older models and/or on the performance of mowers that weren’t properly maintained.  Negative reviews could also be based on just rumor or hearsay, rather than on actual experience.  To ensure unbiased evaluations, a diverse group of community members should be involved in the process utilizing independent reviews of the most recent models being considered.  Equipment demos of this equipment should also be scheduled that are also attended by a diverse group of community members.
  2. Concerns about the lack of local dealer networks:Conventional commercial lawn mowers are typically purchased through local dealers, primarily because they’re complicated machines with many moving parts that require frequent servicing and repair by those dealers.  Conversely, because electric mowers have so few moving parts, and mechanical problems can be easily diagnosed and repaired by someone with just a basic level of mechanical ability, with or without guidance from a factory’s customer support team.  And despite the fact that the majority of commercial electric mowers in use around the country were purchased directly from a factory, some operators will be reluctant to buy a commercial mower in this manner. This barrier will disappear as it becomes more common to purchase mowers direct from a factory, and also as Vermont equipment dealers start selling commercial electric mowers to meet the increasing demand.
  3. Insufficient operating cost data for conventional equipment to calculate the expected cost savings of electric mowers: Electric lawn mowers offer substantial savings in operations costs compared to gas-powered equipment, especially due to the lower cost of electricity compared to gas or diesel.  However, since many institutions don’t track fuel consumption for individual pieces of equipment, these cost savings aren’t properly accounted for in the decision-making process.  Additional cost savings for electric mowers are related to their lower service and repair needs, but fortunately this information is typically more readily available.  The lack of fuel cost data could be addressed by simply calculating the fuel consumption and costs for a conventional mower for specified time period (e.g. a week or month).  This fuel consumption data could be calculated tracking the fuel use of a mower already in use and the fuel costs, or using average fuel consumption estimates (e.g. 1.5 gal/hour @ $2.50 per gallon).  This data can then be used to estimate annual fuel consumption compared to the expected electricity consumption of an electric mower for the same number of operating hours (e.g. approximately 2.8 kW per operating hour @ $.16/kWh).   
  4. The existing 6 to 8+ hour run-time of commercial electric mowers can be seen as a limitation: The maximum run-time provided by the current generation of commercial electric mowers is around 6 to 8+ hours.  And while that amount of run-time is completely adequate in those situations where employees work a standard 8 hour day (e.g. municipal and state grounds/public works departments, schools, colleges, universities, etc.), this maximum run-time wouldn’t work in situations where a mower needs to be operated for more than 7 or 8 hours per day.  This barrier will disappear as battery power/run-time increases. 
  5. Inaccurate negative performance reviews: Since there are so few commercial electric lawn mowers operating in Vermont, there exists the potential for negative reviews to have an outsized impact on the perception of this technology.  Such negative reviews could be based on the performance of older models, and/or they could be the experience of an extremely limited number of people, but end up being more widely circulated than positive reviews.  Negative performance reviews may arise from situations where inadequate training or supervision results in substandard maintenance (e.g. not cleaning the mowing decks), or they may also simply be based on rumor or hearsay.  This barrier can be overcome by ensuring that a diverse group of community members are involved in the process, by obtaining independent reviews of the most recent models of equipment being considered, and scheduling equipment demos of these models.  
  6. Higher purchase price: In spite of incentives being offered by five Vermont electric utility companies (Green Mt Power, Burlington Electric Department, Vermont Electric Co-op, Washington Electric Co-op, and Orleans Electric Department), electric lawn mowers still cost 25% to 100% more than conventional mowers. Consequently, there’s a resistance to spend extra money on an electric mower.  There are many ways that this barrier could be overcome including
    1. Ensuring that consideration is given to the lower operating and “life-cycle” costs of electric mowers in budgeting and procurement processes. For example, by utilizing the $2,000 to $4,000 in potential savings from lower operating costs to offset their higher purchase price.
    2. Utilizing finance programs to spread out the higher purchase costs over time, knowing that a percentage of the finance payments will be covered by savings in operating costs.
    3. Creating formal policies, guidelines and/or legislation that REQUIRES the purchase of equipment and/or technologies that produce lower GHG emissions compared to conventional equipment when this equipment accomplishes the specified task AND will save money over the life of the equipment compared to similar conventional equipment.
    4. Passing legislation that places a surcharge on fossil fuels which will in-turn make electric technologies such as lawn mowers even more competitive in terms of life-cycle costs.
    5. Setting aside funds with the specific purchase of covering the extra cost of electric mowers.
    6. Ensuring that bid documents specify an “electric” lawn mower to avoid the situation where a more expensive electric mower has to compete against an inherently less-expensive conventional mower.
    7. Competitive bids could also be set up to favor equipment that will generate less carbon emissions based on “X” number of operating hours.
    8. Creating a statewide revolving loan fund that covers the additional cost of technologies/equipment that reduce GHG emissions.
    9. Enacting legislation that provides for a complete or partial sales tax exemption.
  7. Utility incentives don’t significantly reduce the price differential: While the BED incentive reduces the purchase price of a commercial electric zero-turn mower by about 14%, the incentives offered by Vermont’s other electric utilities only reduce this purchase price by 3 or 4%.

This barrier could be overcome with the creation of an incentive program administered through Efficiency Vermont, as well as a low-interest loan program designed to make commercial electric mowers more cost-competitive.

  1. Contractors Aren’t Yet Feeling Pressure to Change: While three new companies emerged within the last five years to provide electric mowing services in Vermont, to-date, only one Vermont contractor who previously used conventional equipment has begun the transition to electric lawn mowers.

More contractors will begin the transition to electric mowers when customers demand this service.

Insufficient focus on lawn care equipment to reduce GHG emissions, air pollution and noise:  There’s been lots of attention focused on the need to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels by switching to electric cars, improving the thermal efficiency of buildings, expanding public transit options, and developing more renewable energy projects.  Fortunately, this attention within both the private and public sectors has generated tangible results.  Yet, to-date, little attention has been focused on the significant amount of fossil fuel consumed by conventional lawn care equipment in Vermont, despite the fact that this equipment is so ubiquitous, and electric alternatives are ready available.  The best way to overcome this barrier is for environmental organizations, state government agencies and departments, citizens, and civic and business leaders to aggressively advocate for the transition to electric lawn care equipment, and for homeowners and businesses to begin hiring lawn mowing contractors who use electric equipment.