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Zero Emissions by 2035: Not as Easy as it Sounds

Aug. 1, 2023
The transition to zero-emission federal vehicles by 2035 will require a significant change in how the federal government buys vehicles.

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An executive order focused on converting the federal fleet of automobiles to all zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) by 2035 isn’t exactly living up to its makers’ expectations, according to a new U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

Zero-emission vehicles include any vehicles that use a propulsion technology which does not produce internal combustion engine exhaust or other carbon emissions when they operate. Most ZEVs use a highly-efficient electric drive system that incorporates high-voltage storage batteries, a high-speed charging system and one or more forms of onboard electric power generation (i.e., brake regeneration or solar panels).

In December 2021, President Biden signed an executive order directing the federal government to use its scale and procurement power to achieve these five goals:

  • 100% carbon pollution-free electricity (CFE) by 2030, at least half of which will be locally supplied clean energy to meet 24/7 demand;
  • 100% zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) acquisitions by 2035, including 100% zero-emission light-duty vehicle acquisitions by 2027;
  • Net-zero emissions from federal procurement no later than 2050, including a Buy Clean policy to promote use of construction materials with lower embodied emissions;
  • A net-zero emissions building portfolio by 2045, including a 50% emissions reduction by 2032; and
  • Net-zero emissions from overall federal operations by 2050, including a 65% emissions reduction by 2030.

In examining point No. 2 on this list—100% ZEV acquisitions by 2035—and examining the progress that’s been made so far, the GAO says there’s still quite a bit of work to be done.

In its recent Federal Fleets: Zero-Emission Vehicle Implementation report, the GAO says most of the 30 affected government agencies have “started preparing their workforces and set annual goals for installing charging equipment and acquiring vehicles.” The GAO also says that 26 agencies have set a target to install 8,500 charging ports and acquire nearly 9,500 ZEVs this fiscal year.

380,000 Vehicles Impacted

The 2021 executive 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, the GAO reports. That transformation has been slow-going so far. “For example, we reported in 2022 that federal agencies subject to the order replaced or acquired about 45,000 vehicles in fiscal year 2021, and of those, about 260 were considered zero-emission,” the GAO reports.

Some ongoing challenges to more widespread ZEV adoption at the federal government level include limited vehicle availability, costs and limits on the capacity to charge vehicles at federal facilities, according to the GAO, which is an independent, nonpartisan watchdog of the U.S. government.

As with any new technology, lack of knowledge and experience can hinder adoption, and agencies have generally established teams to manage their ZEV transitions and plan to take steps to address any gaps in their technical expertise,” the GAO states. Some agencies are using pilot programs, small-scale roll-outs and other technical demonstrations to engage employees and build confidence in their workforce regarding the understanding and use of ZEVs.

Laying Down the Groundwork

While agencies wait for more ZEV availability, some of them are expanding their charging equipment infrastructure. In its report, GAO says that some agencies have begun to conduct site assessments at a limited number of federal facilities. “These assessments, which review planned acquisitions, parking locations and electrical infrastructure, can help inform recommendations for the numbers, types and locations of the charging equipment necessary to support the fleet in the coming years,” the organization states.

During fiscal year 2022, agencies initiated almost 550 site assessments and plan to conduct an additional 1,781 assessments this year. “Agencies, however, reported three key challenges that may hinder the installation of charging equipment at federal facilities,” the GAO points out, “electrical capacity limitations, costs and leased space.”

About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers business and technology for various publications.

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