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Tina Casey headshot

Clean Fleets Make Dollars and Sense, So Why Doesn’t USPS Clean Up?

A new study provides strong dollars-and-cents support for deploying clean fleets, including for the U.S. Postal Service nationwide.
By Tina Casey
Clean Fleets

A new report makes a strong bottom-line case for fleet managers to adopt new clean transportation technologies that are mature, available, and appropriate. Policy makers will have the final say on clean fleets, but the study provides strong dollars-and-cents support for electrifying fleets, including the nationwide U.S. Postal Service fleet.

The case against natural gas

The new State of Sustainable Fleets report was produced by the clean tech consulting firm Gladstein, Neandross & Associates. It was sponsored by a group of legacy companies that have become invested in the energy transition, including Daimler Trucks North America, Penske Transportation Solutions, Cummins, Inc., DTE Energy, and Geotab as well as Shell.

The report casts a wide net in terms of “clean.” It makes the case for fleet managers to realize bottom-line benefits by choosing cleaner technologies that fit the needs of their sector. In that context, GNA affirms the role of compressed natural gas in achieving a rapid switch out of petroleum fuels for heavy duty uses like waste hauling and mass transit.

However, as the impacts of natural gas extraction come into sharper focus, policy makers who prioritize climate action will most likely incentivize other pathways for clean fleets.

In addition to the climate and environmental impacts of methane emissions from natural gas drilling sites, the catalogue of local impacts includes significant public health threats related to air pollution and water contamination.

The water contamination issue also intertwines with water scarcity risks, providing policy makers with additional reasons to discourage fleet conversion to natural gas.

On the other hand, the renewable natural gas field is growing, so it is possible that compressed renewable gas could play a role in the clean fleets of the future.

The case for electrification and clean fleets

In terms of deep decarbonization, electrification is widely acknowledged as the wave of the future, and the report reflects that sentiment.

“Battery-electric vehicles are poised to become a leading clean fleet technology in three to five years,” GNA states, while advising that commitments by larger fleets will require the deployment of vehicles in the tens of thousands per year.

The sticking point is up-front costs for clean fleets, as GNA acknowledges. Electric vehicles generally cost more up front than other comparable vehicles, mainly due to the cost of the batteries.

However, studies show that the lifetime cost of owning an electric vehicle is lower, with fuel savings being only one of the key factors. Another factor is the simplicity of electric drive compared to internal combustion engines, which leads to lower maintenance and repair costs.

In addition, the cost of batteries is dropping rapidly. Analysts foresee that the up-front cost of electric vehicles will reach parity with other vehicles in the coming years.

Hydrogen fuel cells represent another pathway toward clean fleets. As with batteries, fuel cell costs are still relatively high. However, the report notes that automakers and fuel cell producers are already laying the foundation for fuel cell fleet electrification, especially in heavy duty vehicles including buses and trucks.

Clean fleets for the U.S. Postal Service, eventually

The GNA report is especially timely considering the brewing controversy over updating the aging fleet of the U.S. Postal Service. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who was appointed by former President Trump, has already become notorious for mismanaging the country's postal service in the runup to the 2020 General Election. By way of follow-up, earlier this year DeJoy awarded a massive 10-year fleet “modernization” contract to the firm Oshkosh Defense that barely modernizes at all, at least not in terms of fleet electrification. The new contract relies mainly on new fuel-efficient internal combustion technology.

The new contract created a firestorm of protest among decarbonization advocates, especially in consideration of President Joe Biden’s focus on fleet electrification for federal agencies.

Democrats in Congress responded by proposing a new budget that would account for the higher up-front costs of purchasing more electric vehicles for the Postal Service.

DeJoy himself seemed amenable to the proposal, but during a markup of the Postal Service reform bill in the House Oversight and Reform Committee last week, Republican legislators threw cold water on the idea.

Raw Story reported on the committee activity on May 27, noting that the members “initially had a bipartisan agreement to pass the Postal Service Reform Act. But when amendments were introduced to update the postal fleet to electric vehicles and to secure the elections ahead of 2022, the House quickly became divided, with Republicans ‘strongly objecting’ on both issues.”

Fleet electrification and fiscal responsibility

To be clear, an electric vehicle contract is only one element in fleet electrification. For example, a successful plan for rolling out clean fleets must include a strategy for recharging all those vehicles’ batteries.

However, the evidence clearly indicates that electric vehicles fall well within the mature, use-appropriate framework for the new clean vehicles described in the GNA report.

As Raw Story reporter Alison Greene notes, the disconnect between available technology and Republican objections to electrifying the Postal Service fleet reveals a deep crack in the Republican Party’s image as the party of fiscal responsibility.

“The actions of Republicans during a mark-up of U.S. Postal Service legislation cast doubt on a basic theme of the party,” Greene wrote.

“They say that their positions are driven by fiscal responsibility and low costs for government services,” she added.

In other words, any fleet manager would have to be crazy to pass up an opportunity to electrify as quickly as possible, especially when the CEO insists upon it.

As of this writing, a more ambitious fleet electrification plan for the U.S. Postal Service is still up in the air. That’s a shame, because a Postal Service electrification contract would help build economies of scale into the electric vehicle pipeline, with a ripple effect on the private sector.

Business leaders who seek to save on fleet costs while shrinking their carbon footprints might want to lean on their Republican representatives in Congress to read the GNA report. Perhaps that will help remind them what fiscal responsibility looks like.

Image credit: Andrew Winkler/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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