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US climate law will help electrify more USPS mail trucks

The Inflation Reduction Act includes $3 billion to convert the nation’s aging mail truck fleet to cleaner electric vehicles.

Side of US postal service van with slogan "We deliver for you".
(Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
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Editor’s note, August 12: This story was originally published on August 10, 2022. It has been updated to reflect passage of the bill by Congress.

French postal service La Poste operates nearly 40,000 electric delivery vehicles. In Germany, Deutsche Post recently added the 20,000th EV to its delivery fleet. The U.K.’s Royal Mail plans to operate 5,500 electric vehicles by early next year, while Japan Post owns 1,200 small electric vans.

The U.S. Postal Service, meanwhile, has about two dozen electric mail trucks — and some 212,000 gas guzzlers that it’s looking to replace.

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Democratic policymakers and environmental groups are pushing for the independent federal agency to electrify its entire mail-truck fleet, a measure that would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb toxic tailpipe pollution in neighborhoods all around the country. Yet the Postal Service has been reluctant to fully embrace EVs, mainly because, it says, battery-powered models are more expensive to buy than petroleum-powered vehicles.

The major climate and tax bill that passed both the House and Senate this week aims to alleviate some of that sticker shock.

Known as the Inflation Reduction Act, the legislation will provide $3 billion for the Postal Service to buy zero-emissions delivery vehicles and install necessary charging infrastructure at post offices and central mail facilities. (That’s triple the amount of direct funding in the bill for heavy-duty vehicles such as garbage trucks and school buses.)

The Postal Service has previously stated that, should Congress provide more support, the agency could increase the number of electric vehicles it plans to introduce.

This bill is trying to put to bed their argument that they need more resources,” said Adrian Martinez, a senior attorney for Earthjustice. The environmental group is one of several organizations that are suing to force the Postal Service to scrap its original mail-truck plan.

The humble, boxy delivery vehicle has become a political flashpoint over the last year because it represents an important crossroads: Either the agency helps accelerate the nation’s shift to cleaner cars — or it locks in fossil-fuel use and associated emissions. New mail trucks are expected to operate for 20 years, if not longer; many existing mail trucks have been carrying letters and packages for over three decades. 

The Postal Service has argued that its vehicle-buying strategy is meant to be flexible, and it has gradually increased its EV ambitions in the face of mounting pushback. In March, the agency doubled the number of electric mail trucks it initially planned to order from 5,000 to 10,000. Then it announced a new plan in July that would order at least 33,800 electric trucks — 40 percent of its initial 84,500-truck order. The rest would run on gas. 

The U.S. Postal Service has ordered both gasoline- and battery-powered versions of the "next-generation delivery vehicle." (USPS)

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy attributed the agency’s ability to increase its EV commitment this past July in part to the improving financial situation of the heavily indebted agency. He said the Postal Service has also committed to filing more frequent environmental impact statements as it updates its mail-truck acquisition plans.

That step will enable us to capitalize on any EV opportunities — as the market catches up to the Postal Service’s needs and leadership in this initiative — and as our operating strategy continues to evolve,” DeJoy said on Tuesday at the Postal Service Board of Governors meeting.

Electric U.S. trucks will join a growing global fleet

Around the world, government-run mail fleets are already making the switch to electric vehicles. Private delivery companies such as FedEx and UPS are also investing heavily in new battery-powered models from automakers including U.K.-based Arrival and BrightDrop, a division of General Motors in Detroit. Amazon has partnered with EV startup Rivian to produce custom electric delivery vans; they plan to roll out thousands of them in more than 100 U.S. cities by the end of this year.

Last year, President Biden directed federal officials to begin working to convert all federal, state, local and tribal fleet vehicles to​“clean and zero-emission vehicles” as part of a larger executive order to tackle climate change. Transportation accounts for 27 percent of annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other single sector. 

Yet the Postal Service, which runs the largest and oldest federal fleet, has continued to favor gas-powered vehicles in plans to replace aging mail trucks. Postal officials have said it would cost an additional $2.3 billion to $3.3 billion to make the fleet fully electric, owing to the higher upfront cost of battery-powered trucks and the expense of installing electric charging infrastructure.

Critics of the Postal Service’s plan have disputed the agency’s underlying calculations. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality have said there are substantial flaws in how the Postal Service assessed the environmental impacts of gas-powered vehicles and the total potential costs of operating electric trucks. In a March report, the Office of Inspector General for the Postal Service found the agency could save money in the long term by adopting EVs, due to the lower energy and maintenance costs of battery-powered trucks.

Earthjustice’s Martinez and other EV proponents say they’ll continue pressuring the Postal Service to build a fleet consisting of nothing but electric trucks — especially now that Congress allocated extra funding to make that happen by passing the Inflation Reduction Act.

Sam Wilson, a senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted another potential benefit of fully electrifying the nation’s mail fleet, beyond reducing planet-warming emissions and harmful pollutants. Mail trucks, which traverse neighborhoods across the country nearly every day, could help increase the visibility of EVs in places where electric passenger cars might otherwise be slow to arrive.

Having a well-functioning, efficient, quiet and clean electric truck show up to your house every day is something that kind of bridges geographic, technological and political boundaries,” he said. It shows the American public that electric trucks are here and ready.”

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.