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Biden vows to electrify the federal government’s 600,000-vehicle fleet

WASHINGTON, DC: President Joe Biden speaks before signing an executive order related to American manufacturing in the South Court Auditorium of the White House complex on January 25, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Enlarge / WASHINGTON, DC: President Joe Biden speaks before signing an executive order related to American manufacturing in the South Court Auditorium of the White House complex on January 25, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The federal government owns more than 600,000 civilian vehicles—trucks, vans, and passenger vehicles—with a large large majority running on gasoline or diesel fuel. On Monday, Joe Biden vowed to change that.

“The federal government owns an enormous fleet of vehicles, which we’re gonna to replace with clean electric vehicles made right here in America,” Biden said at a press conference to announce a new “Buy American” initiative.

This won’t be easy. In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, the federal government owned fewer than 3,000 battery electric vehicles—less than one half of one percent of the federal vehicle fleet.

Gasoline and diesel-fueled vehicles accounted for 63 percent of the federal fleet that year, while “flex-fuel” vehicles capable of burning an 85 percent ethanol mixture accounted for another 31 percent. Just 4 percent of federal vehicles were hybrids in 2019 and most of these were not plug-in hybrids.

The slow progress hasn’t been from lack of trying. Over the last couple of decades, Congress has passed several laws mandating the federal government to shift toward more energy efficient and lower-emission vehicles. Under Barack Obama, the federal government did make some progress. For example, the number of hybrid vehicles rose from 1,766 in 2008 to 25,059 in 2017. The number of ethanol-capable vehicles rose from 129,000 in 2008 to 201,000 in 2017.

That progress wasn’t easy. Federal agencies need a variety of vehicle types, from sedans to large trucks and vans. In some cases, agencies had difficulty finding low-emission vehicles that met their requirements. Some agencies also operated in parts of the country where alternative fuels and charging infrastructure wasn’t available.

Hybrid and electric vehicles have lower emissions than conventional vehicles, but they were significantly more expensive than conventional vehicles. A 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office estimated the cost of low-emission vehicles for fiscal year 2017. It found that hybrid sedans cost up to $5,200 more than a conventional vehicle. Plug-in hybrid vehicles cost $8,700 to $15,300 more than conventional vehicles. Battery-electric sedans cost an extra $8,900.

Trump canceled Obama’s green car initiative

In 2015, President Obama signed an executive order requiring agencies to make plans for 20 percent of their vehicle purchases to be zero-emission vehicles or plug-in hybrids by 2020. It raised the target to 50 percent by 2025. But in 2018, President Trump signed a new executive order canceling these targets. Progress toward low-emission vehicles stalled. The number of flex-fuel, hybrid, and battery electric vehicles in the federal fleet all declined between 2018 and 2019.

Now Biden is looking to restart and possibly accelerate Obama’s efforts. It will be easier now than it was when Obama signed his executive order in 2015. Rapid declines in the cost of batteries means that plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles are more affordable now. Battery electric vehicles haven’t quite reached price parity with conventional vehicles, but the gap has narrowed and experts expect it to close completely around 2025—the year Biden’s first term ends.

There is now a much wider range of battery electric vehicles for federal agencies to choose from—including a growing number of trucks, vans, and SUVs. The amount of charging infrastructure is also increasing rapidly.

Despite all those gains, electrifying 100 percent of the federal fleet will be a big project. While Biden has declared this as a goal, he hasn’t given a specific timeline. Under any conceivable scenario, it will take a decade or more to fully replace the federal government’s 381,000 conventional vehicles and 191,000 flex-fuel vehicles with battery electric alternatives.

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