In one of his first actions in January, President Biden announced an ambitious plan that he said would create jobs and reduce the federal government's greenhouse gas emissions.
"The federal government also owns an enormous fleet of vehicles," he said Jan. 25, "which we're going to replace with clean, electric vehicles made right here in America by American workers, creating millions of jobs — a million autoworker jobs in clean energy — and vehicles that are net-zero emissions."
But the agency that makes up the largest chunk of the federal government's vehicle fleet, the U.S. Postal Service, says it can't yet afford to fully make that switch — even as it takes steps to upgrade some of its delivery trucks.
The federal government's fleet includes some 650,000 vehicles, everything from Army Humvees to Social Security Administration staff cars. The U.S. Postal Service's delivery trucks make up about a third of that.
So Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's announcement last month of a new contract to replace many of those aging, gas-guzzling vehicles was welcomed by groups urging the government do more to reduce carbon emissions.
DeJoy said the contract, initially for $482 million, "allows the Postal Service to be able to order electric powertrain vehicles as well as traditional internal combustion engine vehicles. This is great news," DeJoy said, "because we are committed to move forward a more environmentally sustainable mix of vehicles in our fleet."
Gina Coplon-Newfield, director of the Sierra Club's Clean Transportation For All campaign, says postal delivery trucks are the "perfect use case" for electric vehicles.
"They don't travel far distances in any given day. They sit idle overnight when they can charge," she tells NPR. "And they travel through neighborhoods exposing people to air pollution. So shifting to a 100% electric USPS fleet should really be a no brainer."
But, as DeJoy later explained to lawmakers, because of financial constraints, only about 10% of those new trucks would be electric vehicles. Coplon-Newfield says that's not good enough. "Electrifying just 10% of the U.S. fleet, as the postmaster, DeJoy, has suggested, is really shortsighted and not acceptable."
Members of Congress are urging DeJoy to purchase more new electric vehicles. The postmaster general has said it would cost an additional $3 billion to $4 billion to make the Postal Service's fleet 90% electric — money the cash-strapped agency doesn't have.
The Postal Service's delivery vehicles have evolved from horse-and-buggy days to the latest design, complete with air conditioning and a large windshield to give drivers a better view. In fact, some of the early vehicles were battery powered, before the internal combustion engine became the dominant power source.
While the Postal Service moves slowly toward adopting electric vehicles, Robert Puentes of the Eno Center for Transportation, a transportation think tank, says Biden is on the right track in pushing for EVs.
"Transportation is the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases, and the U.S. lags far behind," he says. "And so for the president to try to put the government purchasing power in play and to try to convert those vehicles certainly makes sense."
Biden has also called for installing half a million new charging stations for electric vehicles, but Puentes says carrying out that pledge is complex.
"How do you make sure that they are focused in low-income neighborhoods, multifamily housing that may not have access to their own electricity infrastructure that way?" Still, he says if the administration hopes to make a dent in climate change, "this has to be one of the tools in the toolbox."
The Biden administration hasn't yet said how it intends to pay for these new vehicles and charging stations.