This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review's weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.
The US Postal Service is finally going electric. The USPS announced Tuesday that it plans to acquire at least 66,000 electric delivery vehicles between now and 2028, and all purchases after 2026 will be EVs. In total, the agency will invest nearly $10 billion to electrify its fleet.
It’s been a long road to get here, folks. Constant criticism, a strongly-worded letter from the Environmental Protection Agency, a presidential plea, and a lawsuit from 16 states is all it took for the agency to commit to quit purchasing new gas-powered delivery vehicles.
Let’s take a look inside the USPS’s plan to switch to EVs and review what it took to get here. And as an end-of-year treat, I’ve also rounded up some of my favorite Tech Review climate coverage from the year. Let’s get into it.
The obvious choice
As of 2020, transportation was the single biggest driver of climate change in the US, accounting for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions. And the US federal government operates the largest fleet in the world at 650,000 vehicles, with the USPS making up about one-third of that.
Joe Biden has made the federal fleet one of the targets of his plans for EVs, setting a goal for all new federal vehicles purchased after 2035 to be electric, with light-duty vehicles hitting that target by 2027.
But the USPS has been marching to a different drummer. Even as the Biden administration touted plans to electrify and cut emissions, the USPS seemed to dig in its heels on plans to purchase more fossil fuel-powered vehicles. Last year, when the agency first announced a contract to replace trucks, only 10% were going to be EVs.
Mail trucks needed an upgrade, and badly. Many on the road today are nearly 30 years old. Replacing them with electric ones is an obvious move.
In addition to cutting lifetime emissions by half or more, EVs are in many cases cheaper over their lifetime than gas-powered vehicles today. They’re easier to maintain, too. And while some applications, like long-distance trucking, can pose difficulties for battery-powered vehicles, mail delivery is the perfect setup for EVs, with trucks returning to a central location where they can be charged overnight.
Finally, the agency saw the light. But it took a while. Let’s take a look back at this saga, starting from the beginning.
- January 2021: US President Joe Biden signs an executive order calling for plans to electrify the federal vehicle fleet.
- February 2021: USPS awards a contract to Oshkosh Defense to make “Next Generation Delivery Vehicles.” USPS head Louis DeJoy reveals in Congressional testimony that just 10% of the vehicles would be EVs, citing high costs.
- March 2021: Criticism of the USPS and its plan starts. In following months, lawmakers discuss getting additional funding to the agency to help it electrify.
- October 2021: Biden proposes a $1.75 trillion spending package that includes $6 billion in funding to help the USPS purchase EVs. Talks stall on the funding.
- February 2022: Following another executive order on electrifying the federal fleet, EPA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality both send letters to the USPS, urging it to reconsider plans and incorporate more EVs into its future fleet.
- March 2022: The USPS places its first order for new delivery vehicles. Of the 50,000 vehicles, the agency says more than 20% will be electric, beating the earlier mark of 10%.
- April 2022: California Attorney General Rob Bonta files a lawsuit against the USPS, arguing that the Postal Service vehicles pollute the air in communities where they operate. In total, 15 other states, and a few major cities, back the suit.
- July 2022: The USPS again revises its plans. Of the 50,000 vehicles from Oshkosh Defense, at least 50% will be electric. Including plans to purchase other new vehicles, the agency “anticipates” that at least 40% of the total new vehicles will be electric.
- August 2022: The Inflation Reduction Act passes and is signed into law, setting aside $3 billion for the USPS to purchase zero-emissions vehicles and build charging infrastructure.
- December 2022: The USPS releases a statement saying that of the 60,000 vehicles in the contract, at least 45,000 will be electric, including all deliveries after 2026. EVs triumph.
In the interest of you finishing this newsletter before the new year, that’s not a comprehensive timeline, but it gives you an idea of how long a journey this has been. What a saga!
A caveat: this commitment is only for new vehicle purchases. Gas guzzlers purchased in the next few years could stay on the road for years to come, so don’t expect a fully zero-emissions fleet anytime soon.
Regardless, as the year winds to a close, I think we can count the USPS going electric as a win for climate action and mail delivery alike.
A look back at 2022
This has been quite the year, both for Tech Review’s climate coverage and for the climate world in general. So let’s take a quick look back at some highlights from the year.
Innovation is alive and well. We put together a list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies every year, and it’s always one of my favorite things to work on. Released in February, our 2022 TR10 list included three (!) climate items.
- Iron batteries on the grid - Low-cost energy storage will help balance out the grid when intermittent supplies like solar and wind aren’t running.
- Practical fusion reactors - Startups are making progress on a new generation of small, (relatively) cheap fusion reactors. (They’re pretty different from the reactor at the center of recent fusion news.)
- Carbon removal factory - Direct air capture can help us clean up some carbon dioxide emissions that we’ve already emitted.
Our 2023 list is coming out very soon…any guesses on what we included?
2022 was a great year for climate startups and venture capital. But the prospects for some technologies might not be so rosy.
- Cheap synthetic fuels sound too good to be true. They might be.
On the positive side of things, the Inflation Reduction Act passed, setting aside an unprecedented $370 billion in climate and energy spending.
We saw unprecedented climate disasters this summer and fall. Flooding in Pakistan killed over a thousand people and displaced millions. Heat waves in China exposed weaknesses in EV charging infrastructure there.
Finally, this year we launched The Spark, where we’ve talked about some of the most exciting advances in climate tech! I feel like so much has happened since our first edition, where I took a look inside a battery recycling facility. We’ve covered everything from molten salt batteries to UN climate conferences, from genetically-tweaked crops capturing carbon to new plastic recycling methods. Stick around to see what exciting news we’ll get into in 2023!
Keeping up with climate
Startup Kodama Systems plans to take wildfire-fueling biomass and bury it underground to capture carbon. The company raised $6.6 million from Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures and other investors. (MIT Technology Review)
A UN meeting on biodiversity reached an agreement this week. Delegates agreed to protect 30% of the most crucial land and water for biodiversity by 2030. Over 200 countries joined the agreement. Notably absent? The US. (Associated Press)
→ Funding in the agreement is another of the conference’s key outcomes. (CarbonBrief)
An offshore wind developer is delaying a project in Massachusetts, citing rising costs. The move could affect one of the state’s largest offshore wind farms. (Boston Globe)
→ California’s recent offshore wind auction could be even costlier, since turbines there will need to float. (MIT Technology Review)
Soup throwers, range anxiety, and of course, IRA. Check out these and Grist’s other picks for climate words of the year. (Grist)
Talks are failing in negotiations to reopen a key aluminum plant in Washington. The cause? There’s not enough cheap renewable energy to go around. (Washington Post)
An NPR investigation tied utilities in Alabama and Florida to news sites giving them favorable coverage. The sites’ criticisms included clean energy policies. (NPR)
California passed new rules limiting what customers can get paid for electricity generated by their rooftop solar panels. Solar advocates argue the drastic changes will slow growth in the solar industry. (Canary Media)
→ The state is already seeing a tricky issue when it comes to solar: the more you build, the less helpful additional capacity tends to be for the grid. (MIT Technology Review)
A new facility in Sweden will use electricity, hydrogen, and captured carbon dioxide to make methanol, an alternative shipping fuel. (Bloomberg)
Climate change and energy
How a half-trillion dollars is transforming climate technology
Checking in with the landmark Inflation Reduction Act, one year later.
Zinc batteries that offer an alternative to lithium just got a big boost
The US Department of Energy just committed a $400 million loan to battery maker Eos.
This startup has engineered a clever way to reuse waste heat from cloud computing
Heata is now using these busy servers to heat water for homes.
How electricity could clean up transportation, steel, and even fertilizer
More industries are joining the charge to electrify everything in order to cut emissions.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.