Joe Biden’s presumptive inauguration on Jan. 20 next year will see a Democratic administration back in the White House and, along with it, doubtless a renewed focus on climate policy from the executive branch of government. This should be good news on all fronts for those looking forward to a more sustainable future, and the electrification of transportation should gain a boost as a consequence. But to what extent can a change in administration shift policy toward greater adoption of electrification in a meaningful way?
This question was the subject of a virtual panel discussion last week co-hosted by Plug-In America and the Electrification Coalition, two organizations which have been promoting the electrification of the transportation sector through advocacy work for over a decade.
The mood was generally optimistic, but experts said a change in the administration isn’t likely to deliver a silver bullet. Rather, the work toward a more sustainable transportation future will continue to be a multi-faceted approach, though with more favorable — and indeed important — influence from the Biden administration.
Jay Friedland, senior policy advisor for Plug-In America, said Biden’s cabinet picks — and how their confirmations shake out in the Senate — will be very important. So too will be the new administration’s nominee to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Who will control the Senate is still to be resolved by January runoff elections in Georgia, the outcome of which will likely bear heavily on what the administration will be able to accomplish.
With that in mind, however, Friedland pointed out that policymaking at the advent of electric vehicles was a bipartisan effort, noting that EV tax credits were a George W. Bush-era initiative. Friedland also observed that, over the last four years, more resistance to promoting electrification has come from the Donald Trump administration than from the Congress itself.
Time has moved on, too, and today the global picture has become more important than ever to consider. Ben Prochazka, national director of the Electrification Coalition, explained that never before has there been a greater focus globally on EVs, with China in the game in a big way. “The time is now for the U.S. to respond,” Prochazka said, and that while the country has a lot of talent in the market, the right policies will need to be in place to continue in a position of leadership.
Hopefully, a resumption in bipartisan cooperation might be available to maintain this leadership position. Sue Gander, managing director of EV policy for the Electrification Coalition, explained that car-makers are retooling for EV production in America, which could nudge things in the right direction. Cadillac’s production of the forthcoming Lyriq sedan in Tennessee, for example, will bring major investment and maintain jobs in this conservative-leaning state. Battery manufacturing by Volkswagen will provide opportunities for jobs in the South, too. Such investments are hard for elected representatives to overlook and could spell a political shift toward enhanced cooperation going forward.
The Midwest, where existing car manufacturing remains hugely important even where jobs have been lost, is also is likely to gain from policies supporting EVs. For example, the new electric pickup truck company Lordstown Motors, which now occupies an ex-General Motors facility, says it plans to bring back workers in Ohio, as and when the company is able.
Another opportunity for bipartisan efforts might lie in further stimulus initiatives. Prochazka pointed out that transportation networks have taken a major hit as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and now would be a great opportunity to invest in electrification in the transportation sector. Friedland pointed out existing bipartisan bills in the works, such as the Carper, Alexander Clean Fuels Infrastructure Act introduced in May 2020, which would likely gain more support under a Biden administration.
Of course, the be-all and end-all doesn’t lie solely with the federal government. Gander pointed out that where the federal government doesn’t move, the states still can. California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, also adopted by Oregon, is gaining traction elsewhere in the United States, while a coalition of 15 states have signed on to a memorandum of understanding to accelerate truck and bus electrification.
Increasingly important, too, will be to continue to build out charging infrastructure — especially where multi-unit homes are being built, where policies to incorporate EV charging points into the building codes should be supported. This can be done at the state level.
Indeed, Friedland pointed out, “The states have been the innovation labs, whereas the federal government has seen cycles of moving forward and retrenchment.” Perhaps this is likely to remain the case, but we’re now moving once again into the more favorable phase of that cycle.
What the panelists were not too bullish on would be the Biden administration’s use of executive orders because, ultimately, executive orders have to go through a rule-making process to be implemented. Furthermore, whenever money is involved, such law-making would need to gain support in Congress.
But even here, the Biden administration might be able to gain some movement by executive order in promoting, for example, the electrification of federal government vehicle fleets. The Biden administration can also quickly cease lawsuits such as the current administration’s attempt to challenge California’s auto emissions waiver.
In summary, just because we have a Biden administration it doesn’t mean that transportation electrification will be an easy path, but there will be more levers of opportunity to make progress, said Prochazka of the Electrification Coalition. Still, added Friedland of Plug-In America, advocates will continue to need to stay engaged at all levels of government and with stakeholders, write to members of Congress, and stay in touch with state and local agencies. Hearing everyones’ voices will likely help move this forward.
Image credit: Aleksejs Bergmanis/Pexels
Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.