The US government will replace its entire fleet of 645,000 cars and trucks with US-made electric vehicles, president Joe Biden said on Jan. 25, while signing a “Buy America” executive order that creates new guidelines for the government’s $600 billion in annual spending on goods and services.
Biden didn’t offer many details, including the timeline for purchasing EVs or whether the initiative would include plug-in hybrids that still use some gasoline. But if the plan comes to fruition, it would boost the total number of EVs by at least 40% above the 1.6 million (including government- and privately-owned) that are currently on US streets.
Today, the US government owns just 4,500 hybrids and fully-electric vehicles, according to the General Services Administration, accounting for less than 1% of the fleet. Replacing the remaining vehicles with EVs could cost up to $20 billion, according to a Reuters estimate.
A switch to EVs would slash fuel costs—the government spent $795 million on fuel for its vehicles in 2019—and cut emissions. The exact carbon impact is hard to gauge, but on average fully electric vehicles have about one-third the emissions per mile as a standard gas-driven passenger vehicle (EVs still have to draw electricity from a largely fossil-powered grid). GSA doesn’t publish emissions statistics for its fleet; based on the total number of miles traveled in 2019, according to GSA, and assuming the per-mile emissions of an average passenger vehicle, federal fleet emissions in 2019 would be around 1.7 million metric tons, less than one average coal-fired power plant.
The real number is likely much higher, though, since about half of those miles were driven in medium- and heavy-duty trucks that emit much more—especially US Post Office delivery vehicles, which account for one-third of the fleet and are notoriously old and inefficient, sometimes getting only ten miles per gallon.
Biden’s promise serves another purpose besides just cutting emissions: It’s meant to prop up the US EV manufacturing sector. Just 20% of global EV production happens in the US, compared to 40% in China. Tesla, General Motors, and Nissan are the only major US automakers that produce EVs domestically; Ford has plans to join their ranks. Meanwhile, global demand is growing quickly: Bloomberg projects EVs will account for 28% of total car sales in 2030, compared with 2.7% today. To get a bigger slice of that pie—while contributing to the country’s long-term decarbonization goals and bringing down EV costs for everyone—US automakers need to accelerate their investment in EV assembly lines and battery production. Hundreds of thousands of government purchase orders would be a big incentive.
To fulfill the pledge, automakers will also need to accelerate research on decarbonizing heavy-duty trucks, which account for about 6% of the fleet; that technology, compared to passenger vehicles, is still in its infancy. Adding hundreds of thousands of new EVs will also place a strain on the electric grid; a 2018 federal study projected that total US electricity demand could increase 38% by 2050, with EVs as the biggest driver. That challenge is easier to manage when the vehicles are part of a corporate or government fleet because the vehicles can coordinate their charging during times of low electricity demand, says Gary Rackliffe, vice president of market development at Hitachi ABB Power Grids, an electrical manufacturing company.
The EV goal could also get a boost from another climate priority expected from the new US administration: big spending on clean energy infrastructure and research, part of Biden’s planned $2 trillion pandemic stimulus bill.