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An electric love: Facilities Management switches to electric vehicles and equipment

September 15, 2023

Alex Spear
THE GREEN MACHINE: A groundskeeper is shaded by a solar panel roof as he uses one of Bowdoin’s new electric lawnmowers. Bowdoin Facilities Management is rolling out electric vehicles and equipment as part of Bowdoin’s goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2042.

Campus has been feeling electric lately—Bowdoin Facilities Management is aiming to switch entirely to electric vehicles and equipment by 2028.

Facilities started this initiative two years ago as a part of Bowdoin’s broader Climate Action Plan

for the campus to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2042, and it has made significant strides towards this goal since then. Fifty percent of vehicles and 80 percent of hand tools used by the grounds team are electric as of this week. Additionally, eighty percent of mowers and 100 percent of push mowers are now electric.

“We had eight gas-powered weed wackers, six gas-powered mowers, gas-powered trimmers, gas-powered chainsaws and gas-powered hand tools. I eliminated all of that so that they’re all electric now. I also eliminated three gas-powered and diesel-powered [SUV gators],” Grounds and Landscape Manager Shawn Robishaw said.

Another benefit of electric equipment, according to facilities, is the decrease in sound pollution—especially on a college campus where students might be in class or asleep early in the morning.

“We want to make sure we’re not making too much noise, but we still want the place to look nice and clear of debris on the walkways,” Robishaw said. “If you’re over by the Chapel, you can’t hear [one of our crewmen] mowing near [Hawthorne-Longfellow Library] anymore. That’s pretty amazing.”

One of the newest lawn mowers is called the Zero Turn Electric Motor. This lawn mower has a solar powered canopy on top that gains battery life while it runs.

“We’ve been stopped on more than one occasion when people see the Zero Turn Electric Motor with the solar panel canopy, and we get people saying ‘wow, this is so quiet,’” Director of Sustainability Keisha Payson said. “[Dana Greindl] did a lot of research for us. The electric equipment that we just received is more than capable of doing the job and more efficient.”

Other benefits include a decrease in oil spills and ground pollution. Facilities Management reported that they are also spending less on fuel consumption.

“I haven’t had an oil spill in a few years,” Robishaw said. “We’re not buying nearly as much fuel anymore. [The new electric equipment] mows eight hours a day without any fuel. It lasts the whole day on one charge. And we don’t have to worry about a leaky hydraulic line.”

While facilities  reduced spending on fuel consumption, electric equipment is still more expensive than fuel-powered equipment initially.

“It’s definitely something we have to consider,” Payson said. “At some point, maybe they’ll reach a parity, but there’s a big difference in cost right now.”

One of the challenges that facilities has run into is storing its electric vehicles during the winter since the temperature drop drains electric batteries.

“We store a lot of our [electric vehicle] units down [in storage], and we plug them in. Every two weeks, we check to make sure they’re getting the charge that they need when they’re stored all winter,” Robishaw said. “That would probably be the biggest challenge to make sure the stuff is stored properly, and we get the long life we should get out of them.”

Robishaw was initially nervous about how the crew would react to the switch to electric vehicles, but he said they were all impressed by the equipment’s efficiency.

“We have all the charging stations we need for the small batteries that come with the hand tools. [The crew] comes in, grabs two batteries each, and they’re gone for the day. They never have to come back for fuel,” Robishaw said.

Robishaw emphasized the role of community within Facilities Management and between students on campus in shaping its goal of prioritizing students’ safety and academics in the switch to electric equipment.

“There’s a lot of outdoor classes now, and we care so much about the students and what’s going on. We’re always working together as a group. We meet every morning at seven. We think about the academic aspect of our job because we’re here for the students,” Robishaw said.

Eli Franklin ’25, who works at the Sustainability Office, helped with the initial proposal of which brands to use for the electrical equipment on campus and emphasized smaller-scale climate mitigations.

“When people think about switching away from fossil fuels, a lot of the focus is on larger scale consumption, like switching to renewable energy for the lights or switching to electric vehicles on our roads. But off-road equipment, including landscape maintenance equipment, is less regulated in many ways than on-road vehicles,” Franklin said. “Mowers, blowers, trimmers—as well as the other electric equipment that the grounds crew purchase—help solve a piece of the puzzle that is less thought about, but still awesome.”


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