Enlarge /. WASHINGTON, DC: President Joe Biden speaks before signing an American Manufacturing Ordinance on January 25, 2021 in the South Court Auditorium of the White House Complex in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
The federal government owns more than 600,000 civilian vehicles – trucks, vans, and passenger cars – with the vast majority running on gasoline or diesel. On Monday, Joe Biden vowed to change that.
"The federal government has an enormous fleet of vehicles that we will replace with clean electric vehicles made here in America," Biden said at a press conference to announce a new "Buy American" initiative.
That will not be easy. In 2019, the last year for which data is available, the federal government owned fewer than 3,000 battery-electric vehicles – less than half a percent of the federal vehicle fleet.
Gasoline and diesel vehicles made up 63 percent of the federal fleet this year, while "flex fuel" vehicles, which can burn an 85 percent mixture of ethanol, made up a further 31 percent. Only 4 percent of federal vehicles in 2019 were hybrids, and most of those were not plug-in hybrids.
The slow progress was not due to a lack of experimentation. In the past few decades, Congress has passed several laws that oblige the federal government to switch to more energy-efficient and lower-emission vehicles. Under Barack Obama, the federal government has made some progress. The number of hybrid vehicles rose from 1,766 in 2008 to 25,059 in 2017. The number of ethanol-compatible vehicles rose from 129,000 in 2008 to 201,000 in 2017.
This progress has not been easy. Federal agencies require a variety of vehicle types, from sedans to large trucks and vans. In some cases, the agencies struggled to find low-emission vehicles that met their needs. Some agencies also operated in parts of the country where alternative fuels and charging infrastructure were not available.
Hybrid and electric vehicles have lower emissions than conventional vehicles, but were significantly more expensive than conventional vehicles. A 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office estimated the cost of low-emission vehicles for fiscal 2017. Hybrid sedans have been found to cost up to $ 5,200 more than a traditional vehicle. Plug-in hybrid vehicles cost $ 8,700 to $ 15,300 more than conventional vehicles. Battery-electric sedans cost an additional $ 8,900.
Trump has canceled Obama's green car initiative
In 2015, President Obama signed an executive order requiring authorities to plan 20 percent of their vehicle purchases as zero-emission vehicles or plug-in hybrids by 2020. The target has been raised to 50 percent by 2025. In 2018, however, President Trump signed a new ordinance repealing these goals. Advances in low-emission vehicles have stalled. The number of flex-fuel, hybrid and battery electric vehicles in the federal fleet decreased between 2018 and 2019.
Now Biden is trying to restart and possibly speed up Obama's efforts. It will be easier now than it was when Obama signed his Executive Order in 2015. A rapid decline in battery costs means plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles are now cheaper. Battery electric vehicles haven't quite reached price parity with conventional vehicles yet, but the gap has narrowed and experts predict it will close completely around 2025 – the year Biden's first term ends.
Federal agencies now have a much wider variety of battery electric vehicles to choose from – including a growing number of trucks, vans, and SUVs. The charging infrastructure is also growing rapidly.
Despite all of these gains, electrifying 100 percent of the electric fleet will be a big project. While Biden has made this a goal, he has not given a specific timetable. In every conceivable scenario, it will take a decade or more for the federal government's 381,000 conventional vehicles and 191,000 flex-fuel vehicles to be completely replaced by battery-electric alternatives.