Connecting state and local government leaders
Many local governments are eager to make the switch from gas and diesel. But costs and limited options for heavy-duty vehicles are among the issues they're running into.
While New York, Los Angeles, Denver and other big metropolitan governments are racing toward all-electric fleets, most cities—large and small—are replacing a gas- or diesel-fueled car or truck here and there as older models wear out. Still, a growing number of counties and cities have pledged to stop adding liquid-fueled vehicles by 2030 or 2035 so that through attrition, their full fleets will be electric by 2050.
“I would be hard-pressed to find a city that isn’t thinking about it or [doesn’t] already have an electric vehicle,” said Sarah Reed, a program manager with the Washington, D.C.-based Electrification Coalition, a nonprofit organization that helps local governments with technical and policy assistance as they transition their fleets to all electric. “This is where transportation is headed.”
Electric vehicles—or EVs—recharge while plugged into a charging station—or, in a pinch, a wall outlet—and require no gasoline. As a result, city- or county-owned electric sedans, pickups, refuse haulers, street sweepers, police cars, school buses and other vehicles emit no pollutants.
“The total cost of ownership of an electric vehicle is lower” than one that is gas or diesel fueled, communications director Julie Sutor, Reed’s colleague at the Electrification Council, said, noting that a vehicle that logs 200 miles a day could save a city up to $2,000 a year, depending on the cost of fuel in that area.
Still, the upfront cost to purchase an electric vehicle is about $10,000 steeper than a comparable gas-fueled model. The starting price of a Ford F-150 Lightning, a light-duty electric work truck, for example, is approximately $40,000, compared with about $30,000 for the gas-fueled Ford F-150. Those numbers nearly mirror the difference in price between Ford’s electric Silverado and the gas-powered Silverado.
That sticker shock could be keeping some local governments from plugging in, Ben Prochazka, executive director of the Electrification Coalition, admitted.
“Part of the challenge that might exist for a city is there is a capital expenditure budget and an operational expenditure budget” involved with converting to electric vehicles, he said. “EVs might cost more upfront for some of them, but over time, they will cost less. … But cities don’t have their budgets set up to deal with that difference where the total cost of operation is shifting.
Also, some fleet managers have complained that electric vehicle technology has lagged behind their eagerness to bring electric-powered heavy-duty trucks and equipment on board.
“We’re ready for more than what’s available,” Simi Barr, an energy analyst for Ann Arbor, Michigan, said. “2030, it’s a blink away. … It’s hard to answer where we’ll be in 2030 [because] it’s hard to say if the market will be able to keep up.”
For example, Barr said, the city would like to electrify its fleet of snowplows, but “the fleet team is uncertain about how electric vehicles are going to do in that category.”
In snowy Michigan, he said, the plows are huge and powerful and in use around the clock—with scarce time for charging—during winter storms. “How we use our plow trucks doesn’t translate perfectly” into Ann Arbor’s plans to fully electrify its 400-vehicle fleet, Barr said.
As a result, the city’s goal is to electrify 90% of its vehicles by 2050 with “the recognition that there are some really hard parts of our … heavy fleet to electrify.”
Still, Ann Arbor, whose city council passed an aggressive carbon-neutrality plan in 2020 and is expanding its electric vehicle fleet quicker than most cities, is experimenting with two electric refuse haulers. And it is seeking grants to help it buy street sweepers, lift trucks and bucket trucks. Next up could be fire engines, road pavers and excavators.
“We’re actively looking at what we can electrify every year when these assets become available,” Barr said.
In the meantime, he said, the city’s light fleet, including sedans driven by building inspectors and other employees, is approximately 20% electric. Ann Arbor has two electric police cruisers and four electric school buses. And all of its parking patrol vehicles are electric.
Zero-emission Fleet Vows
Likewise, Portland, Oregon, has vowed to purchase its last combustion engine no later than 2030 and to have a zero-emissions municipal fleet by 2050. So far, the city has purchased 195 electric vehicles, starting in 2011 with a Nissan Leaf, which came to market that year.
Alan Bates, the city’s fleet business operations manager, predicted “the technology will catch up and the cost will come down … in parity with fossil fuel” in the next five years, allowing Portland to eventually electrify its entire 2,600-vehicle fleet.
To prepare, the city struck a subscription-type deal with a vendor of charging stations so it pays monthly to plug in its cars and trucks rather than laying out the capital to build the stations itself. In turn, it uses its savings on fuel to help pay for charging, making it an operating cost rather than a capital expense.
Bates’ team used a $2.6 million grant from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to replace eight heavy-duty diesel trucks to “get the ball rolling so we can start to transition some of the heavier-polluting … trucks in our fleet,” he said. And inspectors, supervisors and other employees with government-issued cars are already driving electric vehicles.
“We’re building a process and laying the foundation right now,” Bates said.
That foundation, agreed Janelle London, co-executive director of Coltura, a Seattle-based clean transportation advocacy group, is key to transitioning liquid fuel-powered municipal fleets to electric vehicles.
A city’s first move should be to install charging stations so the electric vehicles have a place to fuel, London said.
Second, she noted, is the importance of strategically choosing which cars and trucks to convert first, aiming to rid the fleet of those that travel the most miles in a day and burn the most gasoline.
“Is an electric fire truck the best thing to invest in if the city has limited resources?” she asked. Sedans that employees drive every day and work trucks that are in constant use will save more money on fuel, she said.
“One good example of where most cities really could and should transition is in the parking enforcement,” he said. “The city of Portland has three-wheel scooters that run around and put tickets on cars. That’s … easy, low-hanging fruit for most cities. They’re not driving a ton of miles, they’re stop and go, they easily get enough charge every night to come back in the morning and run their routes.”
London also advised fleet managers to choose carefully when they buy electric vehicles so the new vehicles can perform the same functions as the ones they will replace.
And she said they should plan ahead for expansion of their electric vehicles inventory.
“If you’re going to dig up your parking lot to put in some EV charging,” she said, “then go ahead and put in the wiring and the capabilities for the entire fleet as opposed to digging up the parking lot more than one time.”
Even cities that are considering electric vehicles but don’t have them yet should buy at least one “and just demystify the process,” said Missy Stults, sustainability and innovations manager for the city of Ann Arbor, who noted that some municipal employees might be skeptical about the reliability of electric vehicles.
Still, she added, “The best time to be acting was yesterday and the next-best time is today.”