Give postal EVs a quick stamp of approval
Environmentalists reacted angrily last month when the U.S. Postal Service failed to move aggressively toward electric vehicles (EVs) in awarding the contract for its next-generation delivery vehicle. But the Postal Service is not anti-EV, just broke — and the Postmaster General is negotiating, not thumbing his nose at the president’s climate plan. Congress and the administration should pony up: Electrification of the postal fleet is a no brainer — and the single most powerful use of the federal government’s buying power to drive clean energy innovation.
The next-generation mail truck will replace the boxy, right-hand-drive vehicle familiar to Americans from its decades of use. The Postal Service selected a military contractor, Oshkosh Defense, over two EV manufacturers to build up to 165,000 of the new vehicles with either gas engines or electric powertrains. Mail delivery is a poster child for electric propulsion. Thus the choice of a traditional vehicle manufacturer — together with the decision to keep gas guzzlers in the mix — was a shock to clean energy advocates, especially coming just weeks after President Biden’s commitment to electrify the entire federal fleet.
The other shoe dropped the following day, when Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told a congressional hearing that the Postal Service — an independent agency within the executive branch — planned to make EVs only 10 percent of its new fleet. EV advocates lambasted DeJoy, and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who has led the fight in Congress to electrify the postal fleet, vowed to block the Oshkosh contract.
The Postal Service’s award process is hard to evaluate because the information is protected. Oshkosh reportedly won the award with a vehicle designed for a gas engine, which it will now need to adapt to accommodate an electric powertrain as well. This is a challenging feat that will add costs and require technical and performance compromises. The Postal Service seemingly could have avoided those problems — and preserved vendor competition — by splitting the contract between Oshkosh and an EV manufacturer with an electric-only design.
While the contract award is water over the dam, the Postal Service’s purchase plan remains fluid. When asked why the Postal Service was planning to buy only 10 percent [EVs], DeJoy replied, “because we don’t have the 3 or 4 extra billion dollars … that it would take to [buy 90 percent EVs].” The response reflected an unfortunate reality: While EVs are far cheaper to operate and maintain than conventional vehicles — and are reaching parity on life cycle costs as battery prices fall — their sticker price remains higher.
DeJoy’s response revealed something else, which Democrats’ distrust of the Postmaster General has obscured: DeJoy is negotiating, and ten percent is his opening bid. The Postal Service faces severe financial problems, and Congress has been unable to agree on the reforms needed to preserve the agency’s self-financing business model. DeJoy likely sees fleet electrification as the best shot at getting an infusion of taxpayer funding.
It is up to Congress and the administration to make the next move. Threats to cancel the contract are counter-productive: The procurement process took five years, and the Postal Service desperately needs new vehicles to replace the 30-year-old legacy fleet. Losing bidders who believe the procurement process was flawed can challenge the result.
Instead, Congress should provide the capital needed to produce EVs from the get-go, with the funds conditioned on the Postal Service making most of its new fleet electric. (Rep. Huffman and 16 other House members just introduced a bill to do that.) Toward that end, the administration should make this a priority in its recovery bill.
Alternatively, the Administration can impose a similar condition on $10 billion in COVID-related congressional funding for the Postal Service that is still sitting on the shelf at the Treasury Department. Long story short: as the result of a thinly disguised effort by President Trump to inflict harm on CEO Jeff Bezos, the Postal Service must agree to terms set by Treasury to access the funds. DeJoy and then-Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin reached an agreement in principle last summer but the current Administration need not honor it.
Such funding is justified because of the large spillover benefits. According to a 2016 task force on federal energy management which I served, EV adoption by the Postal Service and other federal agencies would send a strong signal to the market, helping drive EV technology, boost the domestic supply chain, and support the needed charging infrastructure. And as the most popular agency in the federal government, USPS can serve as a highly visible example of clean energy technology at work.
The Postal Service has a tradition of transportation innovation, from the Pony Express to the airmail contracts used to jumpstart U.S. commercial aviation. Electric vehicles are the next frontier.
Dorothy Robyn is a nonresident Senior Fellow with Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy.
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