Energy

Electric Vehicles Slowly Catching on in R.I. Police Departments

The police are starting to go electric.

Many law enforcement agencies in the region are cautiously converting their fleets from gas-powered vehicles to those powered either partially or completely by electricity. At the moment, hybrid cars and SUVs are more common, but some police departments are beginning to obtain fully electric vehicles.

The Barrington Police Department announced last month that it was the first municipal police department in Rhode Island to acquire a fully electric car, a Mustang Mach-E.

The Barrington Police Department’s new electric Ford Mustang Mach-E police car. (Barrington Police)

Police Chief Michael Correia said Barrington, as a coastal town, is concerned about climate change, particularly the rise in sea levels. Both the town manager and the Town Council president expressed an interest in electric cars for the Police Department as a step toward reducing the town’s carbon footprint.

“My concern was performance,” Correia said. “Would it be up to the rigors of being a police vehicle? It’s definitely quick enough. But I’m concerned about how it will do in 10 or 12 inches of snow.”

The car is now being used by the supervisor of the town’s uniformed police personnel. “It’s an exploratory move for us. I’m encouraged so far,” Correia said.

The Mach-E has a range of roughly 230 miles on a full charge.

Barrington’s electric vehicle cost $50,294, with $10,000 coming from federal American Rescue Plan funds and the remainder coming from a Barrington capital reserve account. Unlike internal-combustion technology — which uses combustion and pressure to propel a vehicle — electric vehicles are propelled by electromagnetism. These vehicles use electricity, typically stored in a battery, to power an electric motor.

The police will charge the Mach-E at one of the town’s two Level 3 “fast chargers” at Town Hall.  Barrington is working with National Grid to add electric vehicle charging stations at the public safety building and the public works building, which would support the acquisition of additional electric vehicles. Charging station types are divided into three levels, with Level 1, at 120 volts, the slowest; Level 2, at 208-240 volts, the next fastest; and Level 3, at 400-900 volts, the fastest.

Other police agencies in the state are considering electric vehicles as well. Some already have hybrids.

The Middletown Police Department, for example, already has seven Ford Explorer hybrids and is considering a fully electric car.

“Our town is very eco-conscious, and we’re trying to do our part to protect the environment,” Police Chief William Kewer said. With gas currently costing north of $4 a gallon, he estimated the hybrids save about $5,100 each per year in fuel costs.

“We’ve had very good luck with the car,” he said.

As for buying a fully electric car, Kewer said the Middletown Police Department is still monitoring the experience of other departments, such as Barrington.

“You’re looking at police vehicles, and the first thing you need to do is ensure they’re safe and practical,” he said. Kewer noted police vehicles are required to carry a lot of equipment, including lights, sirens, computers, and communications equipment, that are not required for civilian cars.

“A lot goes into a police car,” he said.

The University of Rhode Island’s Department of Public Safety has been a pioneer in electric vehicles, buying two Chevy Volts in 2019. The Volts were assigned to the department’s Environmental Health and Safety Office, responsible for biosafety, chemical safety, hazardous waste, occupational safety, and radiation safety.

“We have invested heavily in our infrastructure, including lighting, heating and transportation, to reduce the university’s impact on the environment and save money in the long term,” Abigail Rider, vice president for administration and finance at URI, said at the time. “Reducing our reliance on vehicles powered by fossil fuels is another big step in the process.”

Since then URI has added an additional electric vehicle to the Environmental Health and Safety Office.  The URI police have five hybrid vehicles and are awaiting one more. According to the Ford Motor Co., URI in 2020 was the first police department in Rhode Island to order its hybrids.

But there are barriers to electrifying police fleets, particularly if the goal is to go with purely electric vehicles.

One is availability. Between the high price of gas, and supply chain problems that include shortages of  key battery materials such as lithium and graphite, plus problems obtaining crucial microchips, fully electric cars are not easy to find right now.

Another factor is cost. While fully electric cars may result in fuel savings in the long run, at the end of 2021 the Kelley Blue Book estimated electric cars cost about $10,000 more than a comparable conventional car, although this figure does not take government incentives into account.

Finally, there is infrastructure, which means charging stations. A Level 2 charging station, which can charge a car overnight, costs about $2,000 to install. Police departments, though, prefer the faster Level 3 charging station, which costs about $50,000.

Sean Corrigan is chief of police in Narragansett, as well as president of the Rhode Island Association of Chiefs of Police. He said Narragansett is researching the issue, but isn’t yet ready to buy an electric vehicle. He said there are concerns about cost and infrastructure, at least for now.

Ultimately, he said, electric and hybrid vehicles will be commonplace. “It’s clear that’s the direction society is going … in 10 years, there will be no doubt about it,” he added.

In Massachusetts, the State Police bought 161 hybrid SUVs in 2020. Other Massachusetts municipalities, including Beverly, Ipswich, Marblehead, Somerville, Topsfield, and Concord, have added hybrids or all-electric cars to their police fleets.

Douglas Johnston, executive director of the New England Association of Chiefs of Police, said hybrid and electric police fleets are on their way, although some departments are waiting for improvements in technology and lower costs before they go all in.

“Totally electric? We’re not there yet,” he said. “People are testing the waters a little bit. But technology will develop over the next couple of years.”

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