Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

How Massachusetts is helping fleets of cars and trucks go electric

The state is expanding its fleet advisor program, which provides guidance to small businesses, nonprofits, and municipalities looking to transition to EVs.
By Sarah Shemkus

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(Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection)

This story was first published by Energy News Network.

Massachusetts is in the process of tripling the size of its first-in-the-nation vehicle fleet electrification program following a recent influx of federal money.

We are really looking at the barriers, the challenges, the things that we need to figure out to get decarbonization to happen at scale,” said Emily Reichert, CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

A $5 million infusion from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act will allow the Massachusetts Fleet Advisor program to serve as many as 200 small businesses, nonprofits, and cities and towns served by municipal electric utilities, up from the original target of 65. The money will also allow the program to run through 2026.

The fleet advisor concept pioneered in Massachusetts is getting traction elsewhere. California launched a similar program in June 2023, and New Jersey will soon be introducing its own version.

A lot of other states are taking notice and building on this model,” said Jordan Stutt, Northeast region senior director for CALSTART, the clean transportation nonprofit running the program for the state.

Transportation is responsible for 37% of Massachusetts’ greenhouse emissions, making the move to electric vehicles a vital element of the state’s strategy for going carbon neutral by 2050. In pursuit of this goal, the state’s incentive program provides rebates of $3,500 for eligible electric car purchases (with additional money available for low-income buyers), $7,500 for medium-duty electric vehicles, and from $15,000 to $90,000 for larger electric trucks.

Fleet vehicles, however, are a particularly important — and tricky — segment of the market. While personal vehicles generally spend most of the day parked, fleet cars and trucks tend to be driven for longer portions of the day, heightening their emissions impact. In Massachusetts, medium- and heavy-duty vehicles — which include everything from a senior center’s minibus to a supermarket chain’s tractor trailer — make up 3% of the vehicles on the road yet produce 20% of the state’s transportation emissions.

At the same time, switching to electric is a more complicated process for fleet managers than it is for individual consumers. Organizations must consider their long-term budgeting, which vehicles will need replacing when, what available vehicles would meet their needs, and whether their infrastructure is suitable for charging stations. In many cases, decisions must be discussed and approved by multiple stakeholders, like a nonprofit’s board of directors or all of the partners in a business.

The numbers suggest fleets are making the conversion at a slower rate than personal owners. Since the state made electric fleet vehicles eligible for incentives in 2021, it has issued 227 rebates for light-duty fleet vehicles, 95 rebates for heavy-duty pickup trucks and similar vehicles, and seven rebates for larger trucks. During the same span, the incentive program issued nearly 28,000 rebates overall.

There is a lot of planning work that goes into getting a fleet owner to the point where they can really take advantage of electrifying the fleet,” Reichert said.

Fixing the fleets

The Massachusetts Fleet Advisor program was conceived in 2021 as a way to overcome some of these challenges. With initial funding of $1 million, the program was designed to offer no-cost fleet electrification assessment reports and procurement assistance to organizations with interest in moving away from fossil fuels but without the resources to do all the legwork involved.

A small-business owner that’s just worried about the day-to-day doesn’t have the time to look into all that,” said Jennifer Kritzler, CALSTART’s Northeast region deputy director. Mass Fleet Advisor becomes a great resource to answer those questions.”

The process begins with a brief phone call in which an organization learns more about the program and whether it would be a good fit. To be eligible, an entity must have a fleet of at least three vehicles, at least one of which must be medium- or heavy-duty. Then, the organization answers questions about its current fleet, facilities, and goals.

The program has earmarked half of its funds to work in environmental justice neighborhoods: those with high populations of color or lower average incomes, which have traditionally borne a disproportionate share of environmental burdens. Fleets that are based in or regularly drive through these areas will fall into this segment.

We’re really trying to include a focus not only on the emissions but on the benefits of reducing air pollution in communities that are highly affected by this,” Reichert said.

The initial communication is followed by a site visit. A recent site visit in the town of Ipswich involved touring town hall, the Department of Public Works, and the Ipswich Electric Light Department. Consultants from program partner the Better Together Brain Trust talked to employees about how the town’s handful of electric vehicles are charged and deployed, what the current infrastructure is like, and what they are hoping or expecting to see as the town evolves toward greater use of electric vehicles.

The site visit helps reveal dynamics not captured by the questionnaire: In Ipswich, the assessors discovered that their initial thoughts about where chargers might work was complicated by the parking needs of the town’s Council on Aging.

We’re getting absolutely the best information from the local experts,” said Nicole Voudren, president of the Better Together Brain Trust.

When the assessment is complete, it will provide truly useful information to the town, said Rick Mitchell, Ipswich climate resiliency manager.

The results, when we see those, will provide a platform for intelligent decision-making,” he said. We’ll have objective, independent, third-party information on the options. This helps summarize what would be a very labor-intensive undertaking in one place.”

Mass Fleet Advisor does not provide any money toward buying electric vehicles, nor does it require participants to make any purchases. However, up to 75 participants that decide to implement some or all of its plans will also be able to receive assistance with the procurement process: The program will help these participants locate appropriate vehicles, connect with dealers, apply for incentives, train their workforces, and develop standard operating procedures for the new vehicles.

We’re really excited for this not to be a one-time thing, then we walk away,” Kritzler said. We want to be a resource for folks as they go through their journey.”

So far, 50 organizations — from dry cleaners and lumberyards to universities and municipalities — have signed on to participate, and 20 completed reports have been delivered.

To make sure they are able to make full use of the new funds, the program partners are ramping up their marketing and recruitment efforts, reaching out to community organizations and chambers of commerce, and planning events that allow organizations to see and even drive electric trucks.

I’ve found when you get someone behind the wheel of a truck, it’s the best tool for converting people to believing that electric vehicles can work for them,” Kritzler said.

Sarah Shemkus is a longtime journalist based in Gloucester, Massachusetts who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet.