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Here’s What Happens When Every Government Vehicle Is Electric

Joe Biden’s pledge to green the federal fleet could remake transportation—or not. It’s all in the execution.

Joe Biden prepares to sign executive orders relating to climate change issues on January 27.
Anna Moneymaker/Pool/Getty Images
Joe Biden prepares to sign executive orders relating to climate change on January 27.

The best way to think of President Biden’s midweek flotilla of executive actions on climate is as a statement of intent: a signal of how this administration intends to approach the climate crisis. Wednesday, the White House announced it was directing federal agencies to “procure carbon pollution-free electricity and clean, zero-emission vehicles” and in the process create “good-paying, union jobs” in green manufacturing. It came just after a “Buy American” executive order and an announcement that the administration would be replacing the federal government’s 645,000-vehicle fleet with electric vehicles made in the U.S. As he did on the campaign trail, Biden tied his climate plans closely to jobs promises, saying his procurement plan would produce “millions of jobs, a million autoworker jobs, and clean energy, and vehicles that are net-zero emissions.”

There aren’t many details yet as to what exactly phasing out over half a million gas-guzzlers will look like or how fast it will happen: Will retiring fleet vehicles, for instance, be replaced one by one with electric vehicles? Or will the government make the switch more quickly and decisively? Carried out, such a measure would be a major step toward using the sheer purchasing power of the U.S. government to spur domestic clean energy adoption.

The country has the capacity to produce these vehicles, said Jonas Nahm, assistant professor of energy, resources, and environment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “It’s very possible. It’s not a lot of cars,” he told me. “The question is what is the timeframe over which it’s supposed to happen, and what are these special-purpose vehicles that are in there?” Currently, 3,215 of the vehicles in the federal fleet are electric, according to the General Services Administration. So far, U.S. companies have sold 1.6 million electric cars in total.

The country’s biggest EV manufacturer, Tesla, is known for producing expensive luxury consumer vehicles. It’s unlikely, Nahm thinks, that the government will rely much on Tesla to fill out its fleet. Domestic manufacturers and foreign companies with domestic operations, like Volkswagen, have all announced new EV models and pledged to invest in their ability to produce them. Building around 100,000 to 150,000 vehicles per year for the government fleet fits within those plans, particularly with a promise from the government to buy tens of thousands of them. The government purchases will include both standard light-duty vehicles, as well as specialty ones for agencies like the U.S. Postal Service, which—with 225,000 vehicles—is the single largest part of the fleet.

“The Postal Service fleet has been aging and has huge problems. They could now use that as an opportunity to give a boost to GM and Ford, who have released electric vehicle vans that are suitable for that application,” Nahm told me. “To make their investment pay off and give us a more sustainable Postal Service fleet is a no-brainer.”

Whether the president’s industrial policy can also be its jobs program is another question entirely. In many companies, that government-aided shift to EVs may be less a source of new jobs than a way to keep the auto sector from hemorrhaging those that could be lost as the world moves away from internal combustion engines. “When we talk about creating jobs in EVs, we’re talking about switching jobs,” Nahm explains, noting many automakers’ plans to change operations at existing plants rather than build new ones. “The alternative is to lose other jobs, or we can switch some of them from combustion engine manufacturing to electric cars. I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t be a net gain of a million jobs,” which Biden had promised during his campaign. In general, electric vehicles contain fewer parts than gas vehicles. They also tend to last longer on the road, meaning factories may well produce fewer units overall.

The quality of the jobs created or preserved is another question. Many domestic automakers and most foreign producers operating in the United States are currently located in right-to-work states in the South, where wages and working conditions are generally worse than in United Auto Workers shops in Michigan. So there’s no guarantee that jobs making electric vehicles for the U.S. government will be union jobs. And even production in the North has been contentious. General Motors’ announcement in 2019 that it would make an electric pickup truck at its Detroit-Hamtramck plant, thereby keeping the plant open after the hybrid Chevy Volt was discontinued, drew criticism from the UAW for being accompanied by a net loss of jobs. “The transition is going to be complicated, and I think people need to be careful so that labor doesn’t get screwed in this transition,” Nahm said. The text of the executive order including the electric vehicle procurement strategy, released Wednesday afternoon, did mention this issue: “The plan shall also aim to ensure that the United States retains the union jobs integral to and involved in running and maintaining clean and zero-emission fleets, while spurring the creation of union jobs in the manufacture of those new vehicles,” it read. But how exactly it will ensure that remains to be seen.

What “Made in America” means is also complicated. Biden on Monday signaled he’ll update the implementation of such statutes that date back to 1933, which themselves overlap with a thicket of bilateral and multilateral treaties and court rulings. Right now, a Chevy Bolt—containing 80 percent components made in Korea, with which the U.S. has a free trade agreement, and 20 percent U.S.-sourced components, all assembled in Detroit—does qualify.

Batteries, a critical component for electric vehicles, are today largely produced in China, which has been building out its production capacity for over a decade with dedicated industrial policy. Biden and his Department of Energy nominee, Jennifer Granholm, have frequently mentioned wanting to build up domestic battery production. Still, the U.S. will likely be importing the batteries used in clean energy for years to come. Thanks to these various trade rules, the amount of a car’s value made up by a foreign-produced battery, the size of the government’s order, legal interpretations, and a host of other factors could all determine whether it qualifies for the Buy America label. If some critical number of U.S.-made vehicles with Chinese batteries don’t qualify, meeting the White House’s procurement goal could look much more difficult. (For those curious, Roosevelt Institute Government Studies director Todd Tucker has drawn up a helpful flow chart and Twitter thread mapping the weeds of these rules.)

All that’s to say, even less labor-intensive electric vehicle production processes could create other jobs in the short term, especially through the vast charging network that will need to be built to support the new fleet. Currently, according to the Department of Energy, there are 22,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the U.S. Biden has pledged to build 550,000 overall, while as many as two million could be needed by 2030. That federal procurement will be the tip of that spear also means the government has the potential to establish standards in that nascent segment of the U.S. transportation landscape. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has found that 56.2 percent of fast public chargers are on the Tesla network and thus only accessible to Tesla drivers. But the government could make widespread access and compatibility in charging stations a priority in who gets what contracts. And fast-charging stations at post offices in every town could transform the electric vehicle landscape.

Many of those decisions could come down to state-by-state policy. California, which has the country’s most expansive network of charging stations, initially wanted that to be built up by private charging companies, specifically excluding utilities in 2011. When officials realized that those companies were concentrating their charging infrastructure in higher-income neighborhoods, they opened it up to regulated investor-owned utilities that—under public utility commission oversight and with state support—could build and operate stations in less profitable areas. Alternately, New York state is leaning on its public power provider, the New York Power Authority, to build out its charging network. With the future of their core business in flux (including, potentially, gas stations), fossil fuel companies have gotten increasingly interested in both utilities and charging infrastructure. Just this week, Shell acquired the U.K.’s largest electric charging company. BP is that country’s second-biggest electric vehicle charging provider.

There are many more outstanding questions, too. One of the bigger ones is where the electricity to fuel the electric cars will come from. The White House’s Executive Order reiterated its pledge to get the power sector to net-zero emissions by 2035, but that’s still 15 years away. The White House will also need to consider where to procure the minerals for the cars’ batteries if it decides to double down on domestic battery production as part of a broader push for EVs. Among other such commodities, lithium sourcing is developing into a hotly contested environmental, labor, human rights, and geopolitical issue as demand takes off. And while the government certainly needs plenty of vehicles, a broader question about the energy transition is whether it should simply try to sub out all the current consumer cars for electric vehicles or lean more on public transit and denser planning to reduce unsustainable sprawl and materials usage.

With most details still to come, Biden’s procurement announcement could be a modest but important step toward shifting the energetic basis of the U.S. economy. It could help lay a foundation for electrifying the economy in a way oriented toward public interest, rather than just piling tax breaks onto corporations in the hopes that they go green eventually. We’ll know a lot more in 90 days—the deadline the order sets out for a more detailed plan being submitted. Whether this order kick-starts a green transportation revolution or gets recorded in history as a bungled symbolic gesture will depend a lot on how it’s executed.