In the United States, the transportation sector is responsible for 27 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Light duty vehicles—the cars and trucks that Americans drive every day—account for 60 percent of those emissions. As a result, making vehicles cleaner needs to be a central focus of any successful U.S. climate change mitigation strategy.
One important way to cut pollution from the transportation sector is to rely less on gasoline-powered vehicles and more on vehicles that are powered by an increasingly clean electricity sector. Electric vehicles, or EVs, and hybrids accounted for less than 3 percent of U.S. vehicle sales in 2015. However, the federal and state governments are currently working together to expand EV deployment. Consumers who purchase EVs are eligible for state and federal tax incentives and other benefits. Nine states have adopted California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle, or ZEV, program, establishing a goal that manufacturers include ZEVs—including electric vehicles—in the vehicles they produce for sale. The U.S. Department of Energy kicked off the EV Everywhere initiative in 2012 as part of a series of Clean Energy Grand Challenges, with the goal of making EVs in the United States as affordable as the average gasoline-fueled vehicle by 2022.
In addition, some state and local governments are leading by example and incorporating EVs and plug-in hybrids into their public fleets. Such a move offers an important opportunity for quantifiable emissions reductions. Moreover, the addition of EVs in public fleets could inspire new consumer demand. As more consumers share their positive experiences with EVs, and as more people see them on the road, they could become more comfortable with a previously unfamiliar technology. The Department of Energy has built a workplace charging program on the premise that direct driver experience with EVs and access to charging infrastructure at work will increase the likelihood that drivers will consider purchasing an EV in the future.
State- and local-level public fleet initiatives
Incorporating EVs into public fleets makes budgetary sense as well as environmental sense. The cost of fueling an EV is lower than the cost of using gasoline or diesel for fleet vehicles, and across all regions of the United States, driving an EV produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the average new car powered by gasoline. Public fleets are well suited to using EVs because they often have set routes, so public officials can predict daily charging needs. If the fleet is based around an agency hub, for example, the EVs can be charged at a centralized location.
In January, EV financing company Vision Fleet delivered the first five plug-in hybrids to city officials in Atlanta. The city will ultimately launch 50 EVs in a pilot program, which will help the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability meet the goal it set in the 2010 “Climate Action Plan”: to reduce emissions from transportation from 2009 levels by 20 percent by 2020. According to Denise Quarles, director of the Office of Sustainability, “It is important for the City of Atlanta to participate in the Workplace Charging Challenge so that we are leading by example, showing that we too see the importance of actively working to reduce air pollution from vehicle emissions.”
On the West Coast, California, Oregon, and Washington joined British Columbia to form the Pacific Coast Collaborative, a collective effort to shift the region to a low-carbon economy. As part of this collaboration, governments from West Coast counties, cities, and states have committed to increasing the number of ZEVs in their fleets. Members of the Pacific Coast Collaborative signed onto a goal of making 10 percent of new fleet purchases ZEVs by 2016. More than 20 fleets signed on to participate initially, including city fleets in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland, California; Portland, Oregon; Seattle and Olympia, Washington; and Vancouver, British Columbia. The state of Washington has doubled down on this goal—aiming to increase its EV fleet target to 20 percent by 2017.
On an individual state basis, some state agencies and offices, particularly in the states that have adopted California’s ZEV program, are stepping up with initiatives to lead in-fleet adoption of EVs. Rhode Island began to transition its public fleets to electric and hybrid vehicles under former Gov. Lincoln Chafee (D). The state started to incorporate these vehicles into its fleets in 2013 and added 16 EVs and 56 hybrids to the state fleet by October 2015. Vermont, another ZEV state, committed in its “Vermont Zero Emissions Vehicle Action Plan” to purchase or lease ZEVs for 25 percent of its light-duty state fleet by 2025. Massachusetts is implementing a similar program, requiring a quarter of new state fleet purchases to be electric by 2020.
Public fleets can also serve as a model for private fleets to incorporate EVs by increasing their visibility in surrounding communities. Houston has been incorporating hybrid vehicles into its municipal fleet since 2002, and now boasts a fleet that is 50 percent hybrid. In 2010, the city began to convert 15 hybrids to plug-in hybrids—which can run solely on electricity before switching to gasoline—and obtained 27 all-electric cars for its fleet. This resulted in one-quarter of the fleet plugging in. In 2013, Houston estimated that each of these plug-in hybrid electric vehicles saves the city $7,000 in maintenance and fuel over a three-year period.
Indianapolis has also been forging ahead in turning over vehicles in municipal fleets to EVs and hybrids. In 2014, Mayor Greg Ballard (R) announced an initiative to replace roughly 500 nonpolice gas-powered vehicles with 425 EVs by 2016. He also announced an ambitious goal to replace the city’s entire gasoline-powered fleet with EVs by 2025. By the end of 2015, Indianapolis had leased 212 EVs from Vision Fleet, saving the city an estimated 90,000 gallons of gasoline since 2014. While the mayor initially highlighted the initiative as a way to reduce reliance on foreign oil, the fleet turnover has had a positive impact on the environment as well. By the end of 2015, the fleet’s EVs had driven more than 2 million miles—770,000 of which were on electric power alone, which is the equivalent of taking 160 gasoline cars off the road.
The New York City has one of the most ambitious plans to reduce vehicle emissions by incorporating EVs into municipal fleets. Launched in December 2015, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s (D) NYC Clean Fleet initiative will ultimately create the “largest municipal electric vehicle fleet in the country.” This will help the city achieve its goal of reducing emissions from municipal cars 50 percent by 2025, and 80 percent by 2035. The initiative to reduce vehicle emissions is part of a larger effort to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions in New York City 80 percent by 2050, as outlined in Mayor de Blasio’s OneNYC plan.
As state and local governments work to mitigate their effect on the climate, they will need to use every tool in their toolbox to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Incorporating EVs into public fleets is one small step that can help build momentum for a more widespread impact. A municipal EV fleet will not only help reduce emissions from the transportation sector, but it also will help build mobile showrooms to expose private consumers to the benefits of EV technology and, perhaps, motivate them to go electric the next time they purchase a vehicle.
Myriam Alexander-Kearns is the Research Associate for the Energy Policy team at the Center for American Progress.