UW–Madison rolls out electric-powered mowers

In 2020, the UW–Madison Physical Plant allocated $3.2 million for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects to be spent in fiscal year 2021. Ellen Agnew, the Building & Grounds Superintendent, had recently purchased battery-powered hedgers and blowers, and wanted to replace a majority of her aging mower fleet.

“The mowers weren’t unusable,” she said, “but it was something to look at to say, Hey, what can we do to be a greener campus?”

Several people sit on green lawn mowers on a sunny day
The new fleet of electronic mowers and their operators on the UW–Madison campus.

Agnew found a local supplier and purchased seven electric mowers using the strategic allotment of funds from Physical Plant. Since they arrived in late June 2022, the electric mowers have allowed groundskeepers to work more quickly, and easily, than before. With the gas mowers, Craig Berry, a groundskeeper working the South Campus route on the lawn crew, “was lucky to get to five miles per hour going downhill.”

“This machine goes from zero to 13 miles per hour in 2.5 seconds, so you can imagine how much more I’m able to get done with this machine,” he said, “without having to use fuel.”

Berry and his team also save time because they do not need to refuel the mowers, as they merely plug them in at the end of each day to charge overnight. The team no longer worries about oil and grease, saves space in the shop because of reduced maintenance, enjoys a tighter turn radius, and mows more effectively on slopes because of the low placement of the heavy battery behind the tires. The mowers vibrate less, heat up less, last an entire workday on a single charge, and allow one to adjust the deck at a click of a button.

The new equipment also improves the experience of students, who in warmer months sit and study and hold class discussion on the grass. The electric mowers are quieter than the gas powered mowers, so much so that they are equipped with horns so that operators can remind students they’re there.

“I don’t have to worry so much about getting close to students: you’re not spewing a bunch of exhaust at them, or dirt, or debris,” Berry said, citing the reverse spin of the blades on the new mowers. “It’s population friendly. When we have these quieter pieces of equipment, we can still do our work when they’re still doing what they’re doing.”

The electric mowers promise obvious benefits to sustainability on campus, as they do not burn fossil fuel. They also introduce unexpected environmental benefits; their equipped blowers, for example, allow operators to clean clippings from the sidewalk, reducing the amount of organic material that grows in the cracks and requiring less chemical spray to kill eventual weeds.

“It’s important to us,” Agnew said. “Obviously there’s that line of when the costs outweigh the benefits. We’re always trying to find something that is a little greener, more sustainable, so that we’re putting ourselves out there as the example that—hey, we care about the environment, so hopefully other people see that and start caring as much as they can.”

Beyond Environmental Benefits: Operating, and Learning About, Electric Mowers

Ian Aley, the Green Fund Program Manager for the Office of Sustainability, organized meetings with the lawn crew and mechanics to collect information about whether the new equipment would benefit not only the environment but also the people maintaining it.

“It’s all fine and good to save greenhouse gas emissions, but it also has to work for the folks that are on the ground doing the actual mowing,” Aley said, noting that mechanics expressed a desire for certifications, training, and tools to manage the electric vehicles. “The bottom line was, for the operators, [the mowers] are great. They prefer them to the diesel and gas mowers.”

“The university is essentially a city,” Aley continued. “Every trade is represented in the university. Recognizing that’s part of sustainability, too—that the electrical shop, the Grounds, the plumbers all have skills they can bring to this. And, as we found in these interviews, they’re also really excited about it, too, and can offer feedback that’s important to consider when we’re making these big changes. In the end, they’re the folks on the ground whose lives are most impacted by these decisions, so it’s really important to have these conversations.”

Members from Campus Leaders for Energy Action Now (CLEAN), an organization of student climate activities, joined Aley at the meetings. They asked questions they drafted and gathered data about the cost and energy savings of the new electric fleet.

“It has become a Green Fund project, but in a new way for the Green Fund,” said Aley. For typical Green Fund projects, “we go through the proposal process and then implement. In this case, the project was going to happen, we saw the potential, and we involved students in that Green Fund way, in every step of the process, from the calculations to the site visits.”

Four people standing around a green ride-on mower in a machine shop
Green Fund students check out one of the new electric mowers on the UW–Madison campus.

Logan McQuade, a senior studying global health, joined the project’s educational aspect. He presented a flash talk on the team’s findings at November’s Sustainability Symposium. A fully electric mower fleet, he said, could save more than $7,000 in costs per year and nearly $100,000 over the next 12 years. But interviews with operators and mechanics also revealed challenges with the equipment, as the electric mowers can’t stripe the lawns, mulch leaves, or power through thick, wet conditions as well as gas mowers. Groundskeepers also encountered problems with the mowers’ sensors, and the electric mowers do not have leaf collection systems, so the crew used their remaining gas-powered mowers for leaf collection through the fall.

McQuade also explained that since electric mowers are a relatively new technology, they bear much higher purchase costs than gas-powered machines.

“I think, as that technology improves, there becomes more demand for it [so] that the price of the lawnmowers goes down and we’ll see [the electric mowers] take over as the mainstream [option],” McQuade said.

Aley and Green Fund students plan on meeting with groundskeepers and mechanics in a year to update savings calculations and check in on how the machines endure.

“Ask us again in five years on what these machines can do,” said Berry, the groundskeeper. “As far as us putting them through the abuse—that’s the real test, the long term.”

“It’s a bit early, with these machines, to see what they actually can handle. You’re making a trade off, but I think it’s a good trade off.”

By: Marek Makowski