Joe Biden Is Throwing the Weight of the Government Behind Electric Vehicles

Joe Biden Is Throwing the Weight of the Government Behind Electric Vehicles
Please electrify this mail truck. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

U.S. President Joe Biden is using one of the most powerful tools at his disposal to speed up the electric vehicle transition: the purchasing power of the federal government. On Monday, he announced he’s phasing out the federal government’s use of fossil fuel-powered cars, replacing them with an all-electric fleet, during a briefing about his “Buy American” executive order.

“The federal government also owns an enormous fleet of vehicles, which we’re going to replace with clean electric vehicles made right here in America, by American workers,” he said.

That’s a lot of cars to replace. According to the General Services Administration, there were almost 650,000 vehicles in the government’s fleet in 2019, including 245,000 passenger cars, 173,000 military vehicles, and 225,000 postal trucks.

The announcement confirmed a pledge the president made on the campaign trail. In his clean energy plan, Biden committed to make “a major federal commitment to purchase clean vehicles for federal, state, tribal, postal, and local fleets” as part of a commitment to upping procurement investments.

“We’re encouraged to see the President signal he intends to fulfil a campaign promise to leverage the federal government’s vast built footprint to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy and zero-emission transportation,” Charlie Jiang, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace USA, said in an email.

Of course, to make the move truly sustainable, Biden will also need to work on his plan to decarbonize the grid by 2035 and ensure those vehicles are powered by clean energy. The administration will also need to add charging infrastructure at at federal buildings and places like national parks where the vehicles are in-use. Doing so could be a win-win, though, particularly in meeting Biden’s pledge to install 550,000 charging stations around the country by 2030.

“You’d have to set up massive charging infrastructure on on federal land and federal property where people park, but it would also create a market for more publicly-accessible electric vehicle charging, since government vehicles are going to need charge while they’re on the road,” Jared Leopold, co-founder of Evergreen Action, said.

The executive order itself, which Biden signed at Monday’s briefing, makes no mention of directing the government to purchase of electric vehicles, Reuters reported. But let’s hope he follows through on the promise, because it’s a good idea.

The government fleet is just a fraction of the millions of gas-powered cars that must be taken off the road as soon as possible for the climate’s sake, and replaced with more sustainable electric vehicles and public transit. But switching the fleet over could be a huge boon for demand in the clean vehicle sector. In all of 2019, for instance, U.S. customers purchased just 330,000 electric passenger vehicles. Buying another 245,000 of them to replace the passenger vehicles in the federal fleet alone would make a huge difference for American clean car producers, and could drive down the price of EVs so more people could afford them. Even before Biden took office, the Postal Service was working on a plan to replace its fleet of old vehicles prone to catching fire with electric ones, though it has faced delayed. If Biden can speed that up, it could further help in bringing down the costs of EVs for everyone.

The procurement process could also be used to boost particularly sustainable electric vehicle producers by awarding contracts to makers with the lowest carbon emissions, or mandating that all recipients meet certain labour standards, incentivising companies to clean up their acts.

“The government could ensure suppliers are transparent with the public as part of human rights and environmental due diligence — in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” said Jiang. “The U.S. already has laws and an executive order on federal procurement that addresses forced labour and child labour in their supply chain, but they could further advance labour rights globally by expanding requirements on their suppliers to include all internationally recognised worker rights.”

The buy American and buy electric mandate could have a ripple effect for heavy-duty trucks as well. Amanda Sardonis, associate director of the Belfer Centre’s Environment and Natural Resources Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, said the move would be particularly helpful for America’s burgeoning clean-powered truck producers.

“Big delivery companies like UPS and FedEx have been looking at replacing their their their traditional combustion engines with electric vehicles for more than 15 years now, but the sticking point has always been the high price.” she said. “The big barrier has been that electric vehicles, especially trucks are just more expensive than traditional combustion engines.”

To drive demand, she said, electric truck producers have been attempting to lower their prices. But having a willing large buying the federal government could make “make them more competitive price-wise.”

Increasing demand for more electric vehicles would also drive job creation in the sector. By replacing all of those vehicles with electric models, Biden said his administration will help create a million new jobs in the American clean auto industry. If Biden follows through with the plan, it could also serve as a model for how to use federal procurement in other sectors to boost clean energy, where the government is also a big buyer, spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Leopold noted that there’s “a lot of space for installing solar on every government building, for instance.” But the power of federal procurement to clean up the supply chain goes even further and includes purchasing other goods, like buildings and everything right down to the carpets.

“There’s even things like furniture and carpeting materials,” said Sardonis, that the government could vow to only purchase from producers which don’t use toxic chemicals, thereby giving ecologically friendly makers a boost. “There are a lot of ways that you can you can you can drive the manufacturing to more sustainable practices. Because, I mean, the government purchases a lot of stuff.”