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What will it take for the government to buy 645,000 electric vehicles?

President Biden has pledged to convert the U.S government fleet to electric vehicles.

What will it take for the government to buy 645,000 electric vehicles?
[Source Photo: csfotoimages/iStock]

The average Postal Service truck is around 28 years old—with a design that was supposed to last only 24 years. USPS spends $2 billion a year on maintenance of outdated vehicles, which are prone not only to breaking down but bursting into flames. They also are woefully inefficient, getting only around 10 miles per gallon of fuel.

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But the trucks will soon be electric. As part of a larger executive order on climate on January 27, the Biden administration told federal agencies to begin buying American-made “clean, zero-emission vehicles.” For the Postal Service, which uses more than 228,000 vehicles, the shift will dramatically shrink its carbon footprint. The order will also impact the vehicles used at other federal agencies, or a total of more than 645,000 cars and trucks.

That’s still a small fraction of the 200 million-plus passenger vehicles in the country. But the move can help accelerate the overall electric vehicle industry. “I think of Biden’s announcement sort of like the Apollo program,” says Joel Levin, the executive director of the nonprofit Plug In America. “It’s like saying we, the federal government, are really committed to this new technology and we’re going to make it happen and we’re going to invest in it. It’s a green light for entrepreneurs and for people in the sector that we want to really make an investment and dominate this new technology that’s coming out.”

It will take a major effort because of the scale of the fleet. In his campaign, Biden talked about making major investments in new charging stations for electric cars and trucks across the country. That will be necessary, and each federal facility will also need to work with local utilities to add chargers at their own locations. “It’s a significant amount of work,” Levin says. “The interesting thing is because EVs mostly charge at night, the grid as a whole doesn’t have to grow that much to support EVs.” (Grid demand is much larger during the day.)

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But American EV manufacturers will have to ramp up manufacturing for there to be enough vehicles to fulfill the promise. The USPS has been considering new vehicle suppliers for years; one is Workhorse, an Ohio-based manufacturer that makes electric delivery vans. If the company gets a huge contract for mail trucks, that could also put it in a position to make large numbers of delivery vehicles for companies such as Amazon. (So far, Workhorse has been moving fairly slowly, with delays in smaller orders such as the 1,000 delivery vans that UPS commissioned in 2018.)

Supplies are limited by the fact that Biden wants the vehicles to be both American and union-made. Tesla, headquartered in California, has resisted unionization. Nissan makes the electric Leaf in Tennessee, but its factory also isn’t unionized, and the majority of the components are imported. GM’s factory making the Chevy Bolt is unionized, but the car is made with imported components. A strict definition of “American-made” could help spur the U.S. to become a leader in making critical parts such as electric batteries. But it also will mean that it takes longer to get more EVs on the road.

The government has tried to improve the efficiency of the federal fleet in the past. An Obama-era executive order told agencies to plan for 20% of new vehicles to be either zero-emission or plug-in hybrids by 2020, and then 50% by 2025. Trump issued a new executive order in 2018 canceling those targets. Now, the technology has advanced enough that electric cars are close to the tipping point of being as cheap to buy as gas or diesel-fueled cars; over their lifetime, because they need less maintenance and because electricity is cheaper than gas, they can save the government money. Still, it’s not clear how long the transition will take, even within an agency such as the Postal Service that needs new vehicles now. It may take a decade, some experts say, before every government agency is driving zero-emissions vehicles.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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