By Steven Wisbaum
With the existential impacts of human-caused climate change wreaking havoc around the world, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that we need to do everything possible to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. And while the huge quantities of fossil fuel consumed by lawn care equipment hasn’t previously drawn much attention, that’s beginning to change.
A 2019 U.S. Department of Transportation report estimated that Vermonters consume over 5 MILLION gallons of gasoline on lawn care every year, which is associated with the release of over 100 MILLION pounds of CO2. And this doesn’t even include all the diesel-powered “commercial” lawn mowers operated within the public and private sectors.
A typical “commercial” gas-powered riding mower can consume 1 gal of gas per hour. And since burning 1 gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel releases roughly 20 pounds of CO2, each of these commercial riding mowers operated for 600-1,000 hours over Vermont’s roughly five month growing season consumes between 600-1,000 gallons of fuel, which generates between 12,000-20,000 pounds (6-10 tons!) of CO2. For comparison, a car that’s driven for 12,000 miles per year and averages 30 mpg, consumes 400 gallons of gas, generating around 4 tons of CO2.
In contrast, a typical commercial battery-electric riding mower consumes roughly 3 kilowatt hours (kWh) per hour of operation, and in Vermont, the generation and distribution of 1 kWh electricity is associated with the release of roughly 0.26 pounds of CO2. So, when a commercial E-mower is operated for the same 600-1,000 hours, it consumes between 1,800-3,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, which is associated with the release of only 468-780 pounds of CO2, which is about 25 times LESS CO2 emissions than a gas-powered riding mower operated for the same amount of time.
Residential gas-powered walk-behind mowers have smaller engines, but they’re inefficient and therefore burn .5 to .75 gallons of fuel per hour, which in-turn releases 10-15 pounds of CO2 per hour. This means that for every 1,000 residential gas-powered walk-behind mowers operating in Vermont, they’re collectively releasing 10,000-15,000 pounds (5-8 tons) of CO2 per hour, in addition to lots of smog-forming exhaust emissions. Gas-powered yard tools are another major source of GHG emissions, noise, and air pollution.
The good news is that switching to battery-electric lawn care equipment for homeowners and renters is now easier than ever because this equipment is relatively similar in price to gas-powered equipment, there’s a large variety of brands and models to choose from, and all of Vermont’s electric utilities offer valuable rebates.
Although there’s currently only four manufacturers of commercial E-riding mowers, the market is clearly moving in the direction of electric. And while commercial E-riding mowers are significantly more expensive than gas or diesel-powered riding mowers due to the large battery capacities required to provide “all-day” run times, the rebates offered by Vermont’s utility companies for commercial riding mowers are also significantly higher than the rebates for residential E-walk behind mowers.
Another reason for its growing popularity is that the cost of ownership, or the “life-cycle” costs for both residential and commercial E-mowers is a lot less than gas-powered equipment. This is due to the lower cost of electricity compared to fossil fuel, and much lower maintenance and repair costs. For example, the cost savings for commercial E-riding mowers is typically $4 to $7/hour, which results in savings of between $2,500 to $7,000 per year per mower, depending on the number of operating hours.
E-lawn equipment is also a lot more convenient because there’s no need to transport and store gas, it doesn’t require oil changes and tune-ups, is a lot quieter, and has zero tailpipe emissions.
For all these reasons, thousands of Vermont homeowners and renters have begun making this switch, as well as larger entities such as Shelburne Farms; the city of Burlington Parks and Recreation Department; the Town of Enosburg Falls, the Burlington Airport, and the University of Vermont.
The Ten Stones Homeowners Association in Charlotte is now in its third season using an E-riding mower to maintain about 6 acres of private lawns, green space, a community garden, and walking trails. In addition to appreciating the reduced noise and lack of tailpipe emissions, the Association is also saving approximately $1,000 per year compared to the cost of operating a diesel-powered mower.
While there are also now about a dozen lawn care contractors in Vermont offering e-lawn care services, there are still hundreds of other contractors still using gas-powered equipment, as are the majority of homeowners and renters, municipalities, public schools, colleges and university campuses, museums, state parks and historic sites, resorts, golf courses, etc.
To help encourage the transition to E-lawn equipment within the public and private sectors, since 2016 the Mow Electric! Campaign has been collaborating with the state’s electric utility companies, the Vermont Clean Cities Coalition, town energy committees, citizen advocates, equipment vendors, elected representatives, and others.
The Mow Electric! website supports this work by providing links to utility incentives or rebates, lists of E-lawn equipment mowers, interactive “life-cycle costs and CO2 emissions comparison” spreadsheets, a list of E-mowing contractors, and lots of other resources. All Vermonters are invited to help encourage this necessary and important transition.
Steven Wisbaum, founder of the Mow Electric! campaign, mowing with the Ten Stones Village Association’s battery electric zero-turn “commercial” lawn mower. Photo by Satchel Blood.