The spring of 2020 has been… not great. In the midst of a global health pandemic that has cost thousands of lives and brought havoc upon local and global economies, the issue of climate change has been pushed to the back burner.
That has not stopped it from continuing to cause catastrophic damage to our country. Abnormally high temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico directly contributed to strengthened storms and tornadoes that ran across the southeastern United States on April 12, killing more than 30 people, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses, and leaving more than a million without power. Climate change is still a pressing issue that needs to be dealt with. Human activities are causing an increase in the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change, with the leading GHG outputs coming from the transportation sector. This has led local governments to adopt policies encouraging the use of alternative fuel vehicles, namely electric vehicles (EVs). Local governments are leading the way by investing in EVs and integrating them into their fleets, but like all new technologies they must create a thoughtful strategy in order to be successful.
Local Governments Leading the Charge
In 2017, the federal government decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement meant to combat global climate change, making the United States one of only three countries in the world, along with Syria and Nicaragua, to not support the agreement. When the president announced this decision, he defended it by saying, “I was elected by the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” This statement provided an unexpected platform for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto to rebuff the president and assure him that Pittsburgh still intended to follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement. When the federal government failed to act, the responsibilities fell to local governments. In July 2019, Mayor Peduto provided testimony to the U.S. Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on Climate Crisis, along with other mayors from across the country, where he explained how cities have taken the lead in addressing climate change:
As government servants, all of us have sworn an oath to help provide for the health, safety, and welfare of our residents. And addressing the issues of climate change is just good government: leaving politics aside, it all comes down to an effort to save money, help the vulnerable, and make our communities healthier places to live, for everyone. Unfortunately that has not been the case. Given the leadership void left by inaction by federal and state governments, solving these challenges has been left largely to cities like ours, and we must continue to innovate and lead as we take on this crisis.
Cities across the country have begun to act in many ways, including integrating EVs into their fleets. In 2018, the United States hit a milestone by having over one million EVs on the road and setting record sales with 361,307 EV purchases. That’s an 81-percent increase from 2017 EV sales, but it equates to only two percent of all vehicle sales in 2018. By purchasing more and more EVs for their fleets, local governments can help normalize this new technology just by using them and having them out on the streets every day. Austin, Texas, set a goal of having 330 EVs in their fleet by 2020. Los Angeles Sanitation has committed to an all-electric refuse fleet by 2035. The city of Seattle has committed to a fossil-fuel-free fleet by 2030, making the installation of EV charging infrastructure a priority with their climate and transportation program manager, Andrea Platt, stating, “We all control the vehicles we purchase. If we ask the private sector and residents to drive EVs, we must lead by example. This is absolutely where it starts.”
Local governments are uniquely qualified to lead by example. It’s important for them to remain fiscally responsible, but unlike the private sector their main concern is not to be profitable, allowing them to invest in things like EVs that maximize other values, even if they provide a lower financial return on investment. Countless innovations have been born out of investments and decisions made by governments and this circumstance is no different.
All government policy decisions start in the same place—the budget—and EVs are no different. Any mid- to large-size city is spending millions of dollars every year to replace old vehicles that have reached the end of their useful life. Purchasing EVs will not be an entirely new cost if they’re bought to replace a combustion engine vehicle being decommissioned. Depending on the vehicle, however, there will likely be an increase in the cost.
Some of those extra costs can be offset. Many municipalities have benefited from Volkswagen’s $14.7 billion settlement for cheating on emission standards tests. A portion of the settlement was made available to states to distribute for cleaner vehicle emissions initiatives. The city of Pittsburgh took advantage of this funding and other grants to fund their 19 EVs and charging infrastructure, including five solar-powered EV charging stations.
Recognizing that the Volkswagen money won’t last forever, local governments have banded together to form the Climate Mayors Electric Vehicle Purchasing Collaborative. The collaborative is adding $75 million into the EV Market and will negotiate better prices for the local governments involved in it. Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles and leader of the Climate Mayors, stated, “By pooling our purchasing power, Climate Mayors are sending a powerful message to the global car market: if you build electric vehicles, we will buy them.” By participating in the collaborative, the city of Austin, Texas, was able to save $1,300 per EV.
While EVs require larger capital investments up front, there are cost savings made operationally. EVs require significantly less maintenance due to the simple fact that they don’t have an engine. Additionally, fleets will save on fuel costs because electricity is much cheaper than gasoline or diesel. It’s important to factor these savings into long-term strategies to help offset potential concerns about the upfront capital costs.
Generating a Strategic Plan
Often local governments are forced to decide whether their budget will dictate their policy, or if their policy dictates their budget. In order to reach their goals of lowering vehicle GHG emissions, local governments will likely do their best to adhere to the time frames laid out in the Paris Agreement. Once goals are clarified, a long-term budget should be developed, taking into consideration all up-front costs and future replacement costs. This will help municipalities understand how much additional funding they will need to allocate toward their fleet. Then they can identify funding sources, whether it’s through increased taxes or fees, reallocated funding from previously budgeted programs, or through debt financing that could be paid back with operational savings from using EVs instead of traditional combustion-powered vehicles.
When determining the scope that will be required, local governments need to consider what vehicles are in their fleet and which ones can be replaced with an EV. Sedans can be replaced relatively easily, but reliable EV replacements for 10-ton dump trucks do not exist yet. Companies like Mack Truck and Peterbilt are introducing fully electric refuse trucks, which is great for Los Angeles, but are not feasible in Pittsburgh—the trucks are not powerful enough to handle the city’s uniquely steep hills.
The end user who will be driving the EVs also needs to be considered. Even if EV refuse trucks could handle the hills of Pittsburgh, the city’s refuse division requires three-man cabs per their union-negotiated contract, and only two-man cab electric refuse trucks currently exist. Unions should be consulted before any decisions are made. Police and fire unions are much more concerned that their equipment allows them to do their job safely and effectively than they are about its long-term impact on climate change.
Once it has been determined what EVs can be purchased, and who will be driving them, local governments will need to consider the charging infrastructure that works best for them. The city of Seattle has laid out a thoughtful fleet electrification program with an initial primary focus on installing the appropriate EV charging infrastructure. By making this one of their first steps, it reduces potential future burdens of not having adequate charging stations once they begin to purchase EVs. When moving to EVs, Seattle considered the following:
• Start small, but plan big—work on smaller installations while planning larger projects to maintain progress.
• Identify vehicle location and existing electrical capacity.
• Battery size + dwell time = EV charging station amperage.
• Every facility is different— no one size will fit all and costs are not linear.
There are many options for charging EVs, so it’s important to take these points into consideration before purchasing vehicles or installing infrastructure. As Seattle noted, there is not a one-size-fits-all strategy so local governments need to decide how they want to charge their EVs.
There are two basic types of charging stations:
1. Those that provide a slower charge that could fully charge an empty battery over a span of 12–14 hours.
2. Fast charging stations that are much more expensive and require significantly more power, but can fully charge a vehicle in an hour or less.
If slower charging is preferred, best practices would indicate that there should be a one-to-one ratio of chargers to EVs. Some localities might prefer fast charging and could use a valet-type service that continuously rotates vehicles in and out of charging stations. Or perhaps they might want a combination of both. It’s important to determine this before installations begin so that they can ensure there is an adequate supply of power to the charging site, or if they need to work with their electric supplier to bring additional power to the site.
Don’t Get Shocked by the Unexpected
As with all new things, there will be issues along the way when integrating EVs into government fleets. It’s important to deal with unexpected problems thoughtfully so that they don’t become worse.
One consideration that should be made, but might not be anticipated, is how the electricity used to charge the EVs is being generated. The main reason for transitioning to EVs is to reduce GHG emissions, but depending on the source of the electricity, charging an EV may create as much or more GHG emissions than more traditional vehicles. If a municipality is getting its electricity from a coal fire power plant, then an EV would be creating more GHG emissions per mile than a hybrid sedan would. Local governments should be carefully vetting how they’re powering their EVs. Ideally, they would increasingly source 100 percent renewable energy, like solar.
The city of Pittsburgh took the extra step of investing in solar power when they purchased transportable, stand-alone solar charging stations. This investment would help the city further its goal of reducing GHG emissions, but also ended up causing operational issues because of the higher than average amount of cloudy days in Pittsburgh. Especially during the winter months, the solar-powered charging stations that Pittsburgh used were not able to charge their EVs. There was a relatively simple fix to the problem and the charging stations were moved so they could be plugged in to receive a trickle charge from a power outlet that would provide additional power to the unit when there was not sufficient sunlight.
Another surprise issue that Pittsburgh faced was initial driver buy-in. It’s understandable that drivers may be apprehensive of this new technology, but there were significant hurdles the city faced by drivers simply not trusting what the EVs were telling them. The EV users were driving less than 100 miles per day in Chevrolet Bolts that get up 240 miles on a full charge. On cold days, the drivers would need to use the heat in the vehicles, which draws an extra charge on the battery. This caused panic in the new EV users who saw their battery power dropping at a higher rate, leading them to ending their shift early. Proper training on best practices while operating an EV would have helped prevent this distrust and lost work time.
Proper training can also prevent user error. Last year, it was reported that a police officer in Fremont, California, driving a Tesla Model S involved in a high-speed chase had to abandon the pursuit because the battery was about to run out. This set off alarms across the country that EVs were not capable of being reliably used as pursuit vehicles. However, it was later realized that the Tesla abandoned the chase due to safety concerns, and the car was low on battery because its battery was only half full when the eleven hour shift began nine hours earlier.
Starting Off on the Right Foot
There is lot of groundwork to successfully integrate EVs into a municipal fleet. The first step is to develop a strategic plan. Chuck O’Neill, the former senior manager of fleet and fixed assets at the city of Pittsburgh, gave the following advice on how to be successful, “Do the research up front. We should have had a better plan for charging infrastructure, and we should have installed it before buying the cars. It’s also important to know who will be driving it, where they’re driving it, and how often.” He also said, “Get buy-in from the departments and drivers before making the transition. There were problems at first, but once the drivers got used to the EVs, they loved them and some even purchased their own EV.
Chuck’s advice echoed much of what has been covered here already. Changing to a new technology can be chaotic, so local governments that decide to invest in EVs need to develop a strong strategic plan that allows them to be flexible. They need to invest in charging infrastructure up-front to make sure their EVs don’t turn into very expensive paperweights. Local governments also need to work with the EV users to provide them adequate training, create buy-in, and ensure a seamless transition to the new technology.
Following these steps will make EV use in the public sector a success and will hopefully lead to greater EV adoption and a slightly healthier planet.