Connecting state and local government leaders
Technology breakthroughs, federal funding and grants are reducing barriers to going electric with government-owned vehicles.
On the road to recovery from the pandemic-generated economic fallout, cities and states are poised to grow their electric vehicle fleets, taking advantage of new models, new funding and new infrastructure to meet emissions goals.
“What we’ve seen in the last couple of years with cities is it’s been a pilot or an experimental stage,” said Nick Kasza, a program manager for sustainability with the National League of Cities. “They’re looking to procure one or two vehicles to give the electric vehicle a test drive, see how it works out.
As more cities have gained experience with electric vehicles, they’re setting goals for larger fleet transitions. “I really think we’re going to see, in the next couple of years, a very rapid adoption among local governments,” Kasza added.
Climate Driving Demand
During the last few years, local leaders have been taking a greater role in advancing climate priorities, and fleet electrification is one of the most impactful things under their direct control. Meanwhile, a $2.7 billion pot of money became available for states to use for charging infrastructure and other ways to boost low-emission transportation, and more kinds of electric vehicles now are available.
When President Donald Trump announced his intention to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, American mayors from both political parties took on an increased interest in addressing climate change on a local level. Membership in Climate Mayors, a group of city leaders started in 2014, spiked from 80 to 380, said James Ritchotte, the executive director.
The group includes members of both parties and mayors elected without a party affiliation, but most of those associated with a party are Democrats.
Switching to electric vehicles holds two main advantages for addressing climate change: It‘s a simple step cities and states can take and it cuts into their biggest contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s a huge piece,” said J. Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental science and sociology at Brown University.
In the Northeast, transportation accounts for 40% of emissions, Roberts said. Nationwide, transportation accounts for 29% of emissions—the largest single contributor, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Transitioning to electric fleets also allow cities and states to lead by example.
“If they’re doing it and showing that the technology works for their fleets, for their use cases, then it can work for anyone,” said Katherine Stainken, senior director for electric vehicle policy at the Electrification Coalition, an advocacy group.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, procurement of electric vehicles stalled, Ritchotte said. But it also dipped for traditional vehicles because of governments’ overall budget uncertainty rather than a lack of interest in electric vehicles.
As cities and towns are regaining their budgets, there has been an uptick in procurement of electric vehicles. “It wasn’t just a momentary flash that there was this interest in EVs, but that actually this is a long-term trend,” Ritchotte said.
A Number of Challenges Persist
Still, several obstacles to adoption remain. A lot of state and local leaders are wary of changing the fundamentals of fleet management. They also are hesitant to pay the greater upfront cost for electric vehicles and worried the lack of charging infrastructure would make those investments less usable than gas models.
Electric vehicles are more expensive than those with traditional internal combustion engines. The roughly $890,000 upfront cost of an electric bus is nearly double that of a diesel-powered bus, according to a 2020 U.S. Department of Energy report.
Federal grant programs like the Federal Highway Administration’s Low or No Emission Vehicle Program and the EPA’s Diesel Emissions Reduction Act program remain important sources for city and county electrical vehicle procurement. Since 2015, the FHWA bus electrification program has awarded more than $450 million in grants, according to the research firm Atlas Public Policy and the Alliance for Transportation Electrification.
Seven states also operate grant programs that local governments can use for part or all of the costs of new buses and other electric vehicles, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In addition, many states still have money available from the $2.7 billion they received as part of the federal government’s settlement with Volkswagen for its emissions cheating scandal. Michigan, for example, has an active request for proposals to use $16 million of the $64.8 million it received to buy buses, shuttles and medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, with preference “given to all-electric vehicles and charging equipment.”
Plus, two-thirds of states that received settlement funds have used the 15% maximum of their allotment for electric charging station infrastructure, according to a 2019 study by environmental groups U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Environment America.
More money might be on the way. The bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed would provide $7.5 billion for new charging stations. A good start, advocates say, but not enough. A group of House Democrats, led by Michigan’s Debbie Dingell, asked for another $85 billion for charging infrastructure for public and private vehicles as part of the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill that Congress has not yet written.
Finally, hundreds of cities and counties across the country—from Honolulu to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Montgomery County, Maryland—have also banded together to form an electric vehicle purchasing collaborative. Led in part by Climate Mayors, the collaborative allows for lower prices through group purchasing, as well as a network of organizations that can share best practices and lessons learned.
The collaborative advised Des Moines, for example, on its procurement of four Nissan Leafs when the city was looking for electric vehicles that could handle Midwest winters. Once fuel and maintenance savings were factored in, the city said that the Nissan Leafs reached cost parity with its conventional light-duty municipal sedans.
To get used to operating an at least partially electric fleet, several cities and transit agencies have launched pilot programs of five to 15 electric buses, said Michael Kilpatrick, who oversees the state and local government segment at Duke Energy Sustainable Solutions.
Scaling up the transition presents several challenges beyond what cities and states with a handful of electric vehicles have been dealing with. After decades of managing gas-powered fleets, the need to install electric charging stations, adjust to electric vehicles’ shorter ranges and overhaul other fleet management processes can seem daunting.
“It’s just changing up the norm,” Kilpatrick said. “That’s become the biggest challenge.”
Though it may take some time, the challenges to learning a new system are not insurmountable, Stainken said: “There is a learning curve, but once you’re on the top of that curve and you get it, it’s pretty easy. It’s not like we’re trying to get to Pluto or anything.”
More Model Availability
The introduction of the fully electric more affordable Chevrolet Volt early last decade helped Sacramento, California realize the electric vehicles goals it established in 2004, Sacramento Fleet Manager Mark Stevens said.
The Volt “afforded us the opportunity to replace all of our administrative vehicles,” he said.
Now, the city’s fleet is 52% electric. The cost of operations and maintenance for the electric half of the fleet is 75% less than the gas-powered one, according to a city progress report published in July 2020. The city has used those savings to build charging stations and other infrastructure, Stevens said.
But the city hasn’t reached its updated goal of 75% electric that it set in 2017 because the vehicles it needs aren’t available in electric versions. “A lot of our lighter duty fleet are pickup trucks,” Stevens said. “There’s nothing really available now.”
Across the country, smaller electric vehicles like the Volt may be appropriate for tasks like parking enforcement, but aren’t appropriate for other city jobs, including police and fire services, Ritchotte said. And some cities in rural areas have fleets almost entirely of Ford F-150 pickups, Ritchotte added.
Ford is releasing an electric pickup, the Lightning, next year. With a starting price of $40,000, it’s less expensive than other automakers’ planned battery-powered trucks.
“We have cities that are chomping at the bit,” said Sarah Reed, the electric vehicles program manager for the Electrification Coalition. “They want those electric medium- and heavy-duty options, but they aren’t quite here at that level yet.”