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White House plans for zero-emission federal fleet by 2035 off to slow start

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President Joe Biden’s executive order to convert the federal fleet of automobiles to all zero-emission vehicles by 2035 is off to a slow start, according to a new report.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that federal agencies subject to Biden’s executive order replaced or acquired about 45,000 vehicles in fiscal year 2021. About 260 of those 45,000 were considered zero-emission vehicles. That’s 0.58% of the total. While many federal agencies have started planning for an all-electric future, they face challenges such as limited vehicle availability, costs and limits on the ability to charge vehicles at federal facilities, some of which are leased, according to the Government Accountability Office report.

A zero-emission vehicle is one that produces zero tailpipe exhaust emissions of some pollutants or greenhouse gases. Examples include battery-powered electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and fuel cell electric vehicles, which are powered by the conversion of hydrogen to electricity.

Biden’s order affects about 380,000 vehicles within federal fleets as they become subject to replacement and “represents a significant transformation in the federal government’s approach to vehicle procurement,” according to the report.

Most of the 30 affected federal agencies have started preparing and setting annual goals for installing charging equipment and acquiring vehicles. Twenty-six agencies have set a target to install 8,500 charging ports and acquire nearly 9,500 zero-emission vehicles this fiscal year. The executive order requires all acquisitions of light-duty vehicles to be zero-emission vehicles by the end of fiscal year 2027. The order requires all vehicle acquisitions to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

Federal agencies have run into hurdles along the way. Seventeen of the 26 agency plans reported that limited numbers of vehicles available from manufacturers was a problem in meeting targets. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation initially wanted to order 430 zero-emission vehicles for fiscal year 2022, but the General Services Administration scaled the order back to 292 due, in part, to order cancelations from manufacturers, according to the report.

Another problem is that not all available zero-emission vehicles meet the requirements of federal agencies.

“Fifteen of the 26 plans identified the lack of available ZEV models that could perform mission needs as a potential challenge to meeting their targets,” according to the Government Accountability Office report. “As we reported in 2022, larger models of SUVs and pickup trucks, which some agencies need to complete their missions, have not been commercially available.”

For example, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said that they could use zero-emission vehicles for administrative roles, but not for patrols.

“They do not believe that current ZEV technology can support law enforcement equipment or perform law enforcement missions in extreme environments, such as those on the borders,” according to the report.

The cost of installing charging equipment was another hurdle identified in the Government Accountability Office report. Ten of 26 plans reported concerns about the potential costs associated with installing charging equipment.

“These costs may include, but are not limited to, the site assessment, design, wiring, and trenching. A more straight forward installation of a Level 2 charging equipment (with two ports), according to GSA officials, may cost $45,000 to $50,000 on average, including the cost of the equipment,” according to the report. “However, economies of scale could be achieved with more charging equipment being installed at the same time and location. GSA official noted that if major electrical upgrades are necessary, such a project could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The report noted: “The extent and cost of the facility upgrades necessary to support a fully ZEV fleet are uncertain until agencies conduct site assessments across all fleet locations. Such an endeavor will take time; for example, DHS operates vehicles out of over 3,000 locations.”

To meet the fiscal year 2023 targets, agencies estimated in their 26 approved plans that they would need over $470 million. That’s almost $200 million in estimated increased incremental costs and almost $300 million in estimated costs to design and install the necessary infrastructure, among other potential expenses, according to the report.

And for some agencies, such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection, installing the needed equipment could be difficult.

“[U.S. Customs and Border Protection] also said that many of their sites are in remote locations which can pose a challenge to supplying the necessary electricity – in such scenarios, ‘utility side upgrades’ may come with substantial costs, much of which may be passed on to the agency involved,” according to the report. “Accordingly, [Council on Environmental Quality] officials said that agencies should reach out to their utilities as soon as possible since potential infrastructure upgrades, in some extreme cases, may take years to install.”

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