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Tina Casey headshot

Pressure Intensifies for Fleet Electrification at the U.S. Postal Service

Obstacles to fleet electrification at the U.S. Postal Service are shrinking, and that shift could accelerate decarbonization efforts across the country.
By Tina Casey
fleet electrification

The idea of converting the Postal Service’s entire fleet of 230,000 vehicles to all-electric may seem daunting at first. However, obstacles to fleet electrification are falling away as battery costs drop. If the Postal Service can achieve a rapid transition to electric vehicles (EVs), it could provide other leading fleets with a clear demonstration of the bottom-line benefits of zero-emission technology.

Fleet electrification is coming, but at what speed?

There is no question that the U.S. Postal Service needs to replace its aging fleet of inefficient, fire-prone internal combustion vehicles. The question is how quickly, and with which vehicles.

Earlier this year, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy unveiled a plan that would initially replace only 10 percent of the Postal Service fleet with EVs, while locking in a new contract to purchase thousands of conventional, though presumably fuel efficient, gas-powered vehicles.

With a projected lifespan of 25 years for the new vehicles, the DeJoy plan would leave the Postal Service generations behind as automakers pivot toward the EV market.

The DeJoy plan was met with a firestorm of protest from Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives. In a letter to Postmaster DeJoy, Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who chairs the House Oversight Committee, pointed out that President Biden had set a goal of decarbonizing all federal fleets including the Postal Service.

As a counter-proposal, Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) sponsored a bill that budgeted an estimated $6 billion for Postal Service fleet decarbonization, under an initial goal of 75 percent for electric vehicles and other zero emission technologies.

Calling the fleet electrification bluff

The pressure increased earlier this week, when Maloney, Huffman, and 50 other House Democrats sent letters to President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stressing the urgent need to replace the Postal Service fleet with zero emission vehicles.

The Postal Service simply cannot afford to lock in another 25 years of reliance on primarily fossil fuel delivery vehicles—to do so would be short sighted and fiscally disastrous for the already struggling agency, which has lost $69 billion over the last eleven years,” they wrote.

They also expressed support for allocating $8 billion for the up-front cost of Postal Service fleet decarbonization, which is the price tag that DeJoy himself suggested.

That cost could come under a $46 billion allocation that President Biden has proposed for a widespread fleet decarbonization program across all federal agencies.

The bottom-line benefits of fleet electrification

The up-front cost of purchasing an electric vehicle is still higher than for comparable cars. However, as early as 2012, evidence began to build that electric vehicles save money over time, compared to conventional vehicles.

A sharp decrease in fuel costs is one factor. Another is the overall simplicity of an electric drive. Compared to internal combustion engines, electric vehicles can save on maintenance and repair costs.

In addition, fleet electrification spares fleet managers from the headaches involved in dealing oil price spikes and shortages, as on display this week when the Colonial oil pipeline became the victim of a ransomware attack.

The letter to President Biden from the 50 Democrats contrasts these advantages with the current state of affairs at the Postal Service.

The letter points out that more than half of the Postal Service fleet vehicles are nearing the end of their 24-year lifespan and average only 10 miles per gallon.

“Maintaining these aging vehicles comes at a high environmental and financial cost: The Postal Service spends $2 billion and over 30,000 hours per year on delivery vehicle maintenance, and in fiscal year 2019 fuel costs alone for these vehicles totaled $491 million,” they wrote.

In addition to direct operational costs, the 50 Democrats also took note of the impacts on Postal Service employees.

“Many of these vehicles also pose risks to the frontline workers who drive them. They have neither airbags nor anti-lock brakes, and there have been numerous accounts of these vehicles catching fire,” they observed.

One item not mentioned in the letter is public relations. As other vehicles decarbonize, the year on year persistence of soon-to-be-obsolete Postal Service trucks will cast the agency as a backwards-looking operation that failed to anticipate a history-making shift in technology, even when that shift was already under way.

How the U.S. Postal Service could lead on fleet electrification

Despite their critical observations, the 50 Democrats concluded their letter on an optimistic note.

“The Postal Service has the potential at this critical moment to be an innovative leader in fleet acquisition and make bold investments in climate-focused reform,” they wrote.

Given that outlook, the Postal Service has an opportunity to model best practices for fleet electrification in the U.S.

Although many fleets are already beginning to electrify, much uncharted territory remains.

A recent survey of 91 fleet managers by the RMI indicates that the Postal Service’s vast fleet could become a proving ground for systems that create new efficiencies and reduce costs.

Adding new EVs to a fleet is only the low-hanging fruit, RMI advises.

“For many organizations, [fleet electrification] will mean restructuring their internal business processes, including procurement, accounting, long-term capital project planning, fiscal budgeting, operations, and more,” RMI explains.

RMI also notes that electrification will involve “a more extensive relationship with their local utilities, more proactive involvement with city and county officials, and a cohesive, integrated strategy across an organization, from the C-suite to individual organizational units.”

As a unionized public agency authorized under the U.S. Constitution, the Postal Service has the potential to leverage these stakeholder relationships to accelerate fleet electrification. That would help present pathways to success for private fleets while accommodating President Biden’s goal of growing the unionized workforce.

Another leadership lesson from the U.S. Postal Service

Unfortunately, the issue of leadership has been problematic during the tenure of DeJoy as Postmaster. An appointee of former President Trump, DeJoy has been accused of intentionally slowing delivery times when an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots flooded post offices around the country last year, reportedly with the aim of sabotaging the 2020 General Election.

In addition, DeJoy’s reputation has not been helped by reporting on his financial stake in several firms in competition with the Postal Service, nor by the recent release of data underscoring the impact of his operational policies on delivery times.

Although DeJoy could be removed by the Postal Service Board of Governors, President Biden has refrained from pressing for his ouster. The hands-off strategy appears aimed at providing Republicans in Congress with a pathway for supporting a reform bill that Maloney is shepherding through the House of Representatives.

So far the Biden approach appears to be successful, as the bill continues to pick up bipartisan support.

In an interesting twist, the latest version of the Maloney bill would enable the Postal Service to provide non-postal services, including to other government agencies. That could create additional avenues for fleet electrification, depending on what those services are.

The new version also reportedly has the support of Amazon and other leading delivery service stakeholders that have been organizing for fleet electrification.

Whether or not DeJoy remains in office, all signs are pointing to a more rapid decarbonization plan for the Postal Service, and a consequent ripple effect on privately operated fleets across the country.

Image credit: Sam LaRussa/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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey