The Inflation Reduction Act signed by President Biden this month includes $3 billion to help the U.S. Postal Service decarbonize its mail delivery fleet and switch to electric vehicles.
At the conclusion of the Aug. 16 signing ceremony at the White House, a new University of Michigan study found that switching to all-electric vehicles for delivering mail would result in far greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions than previously estimated. USPS.
In its analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the Next Generation Delivery Vehicle program, the Postal Service underestimated expected greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline-powered vehicles and overestimated emissions tied to battery-electric vehicles, according to UM researchers.
“Our paper highlights the fact that USPS’ analysis is severely flawed, leading to a dramatic underestimation of the benefits of BEVs, which may have influenced their decision-making process,” said Maxwell Woody, lead author of the new study published online in August. 26 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.
The NGDV program calls for the purchase of up to 165,000 new mail delivery trucks over the next decade. The Postal Service said in February that at least 10% of the new mail cars will be electric. But after fierce criticism from many quarters, the agency increased that number in July.
Although the Postal Service now says at least 40% of new delivery vehicles will be electric, flaws in the USPS’s environmental analysis remain and need to be addressed, said Woody, a research area specialist at the Center for Sustainable Systems, part of the U-M School of the Environment and sustainability.
The new study takes a second look at two delivery vehicle scenarios that the Postal Service evaluated in its 340-page final environmental impact statement on the NGDV project, released Jan. 7.
This paper compared the expected environmental impacts of a fleet with 10% battery electric vehicles and 90% petrol trucks (the so-called ICEV scenario for internal combustion engine vehicles) with a fleet with 100% battery electric vehicles (the so-called BEV scenario).
UM researchers conducted a cradle-to-grave greenhouse gas emissions assessment — known as a life-cycle assessment, or LCA — of the two scenarios and reached some very different conclusions than the Postal Service did.
The UM team found that:
- Lifetime greenhouse gas emissions under the ICEV scenario would be 15% higher than the Postal Service estimates, while emissions associated with the BEV scenario would be at least 8% lower than the agency estimates.
- When factoring in expected improvements to electric vehicles and future decarbonization of the electric grid, an all-electric USPS delivery fleet would result in up to 63% lower greenhouse gas emissions over the fleet’s lifetime than the agency estimated.
- An all-electric fleet would reduce lifetime greenhouse gas emissions by 14.7 to 21.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents compared to the ICEV scenario. The USPS estimate was 10.3 million metric tons.
The Postal Service declined to comment on the UM study.
In February, the agency announced that it had completed an environmental review of its Next Generation Delivery Vehicle program and was moving forward with plans to begin purchasing new trucks. At least 10% of the vehicles delivered would be zero-emission electric models, while the rest would be powered by petrol.
In response, the attorneys general of 16 states (including Michigan), the District of Columbia, and several environmental groups sued the postal agency to block the original purchase plan or force the Postal Service to buy more electric trucks. The agency later committed to electrifying at least 40% of its new delivery fleet.
The authors of the new study say the main reasons their findings differ substantially from the USPS results are:
- The UM study covers greenhouse gases generated throughout the life of a delivery vehicle, including the extraction and manufacture of materials, vehicle assembly, vehicle operation and servicing (known as in-use emissions), and end-of-life disposal. The analysis of the postal service only looked at emissions from the operational phase.
- A new study includes projections of how emissions from the electric grid are likely to change over the estimated 20-year lifespan of next-generation vans as renewables increasingly replace fossil fuels. The USPS analysis did not address this factor, which is known as grid decarbonization.
- The UM study uses a more accurate method that relies on fuel consumption and fuel burn intensity to calculate vehicle operational emissions. USPS’s analysis of projected operational emissions was based on estimated emissions per mile.
“While our emissions results and the USPS emissions values are on the same order, the USPS FEIS details appear to have significant miscalculations and differ widely from the established vehicle LCA literature,” the study authors wrote.
The study’s lead author, Greg Keoleian, said the new findings suggest the Postal Service should be deploying electric delivery vans at a much higher rate than 40%. The failure to do so reveals a lack of sustainability leadership on the part of the agency, he said.
Many of the largest private fleet operators — including FedEx, UPS, Amazon and Walmart — have begun electrifying their fleets and have more ambitious electrification and decarbonization goals than the current USPS purchase plan, he said.
“Each gas vehicle purchased locks up infrastructure for at least 20 years, putting the federal government behind private fleets and leading to future greenhouse gas emissions that could be dramatically reduced by greater deployment of electric vans,” said Keoleian, director. from the UM Center for Sustainable Systems.
Ultimately, the USPS’s decision on next-generation delivery vehicles was based more on cost than climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, he said. The agency estimated that an all-electric fleet would have a total cost of ownership $3.3 billion higher than a fleet with only 10% electric vehicles.
However, the recently signed US Inflation Reduction Act includes $3 billion to help the US Postal Service meet zero-emission vehicle goals: $1.29 billion to purchase zero-emission delivery vehicles and $1.71 billion for infrastructure to support these vehicles.
The additional funds are likely to reduce cost-based objections to an all-electric postal delivery fleet.
Additionally, the authors of the new study say the Postal Agency’s estimate of $3.3 billion in cost savings for the ICEV scenario failed to account for climate and public health harms associated with continued use of fossil fuel vehicles.
“Given the long lifespans expected of these vehicles, committing to such a course runs counter to US climate policy and environmental justice goals, squanders an opportunity to deploy BEVs in an ideal use case, reveals a lack of sustainability leadership, and threatens our ability to meet national and international climate goals,” the study authors wrote.
In addition to Woody and Keoleian, the authors of the Environmental Science & Technology article are Parth Vaishnav and Michael Craig of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the UM School for Environment and Sustainability.
The work was supported by Ford Motor Co. through the Ford-University of Michigan Alliance Project Award, the Responsible Battery Coalition, and the UM School for Environment and Sustainability.
Jim Erickson, Senior Public Affairs Officer, (Jim Erickson was a newspaper reporter at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel before joining the UM News Service in 2007. As a science writer he has received the Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Science in Society Award from the National Science Writers Association, and was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT.Erickson has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Hamilton college.)
Courtesy University of Michigan.
Study: Life-Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of the USPS Next-Generation Vehicle Fleet (DOI 10.1021/acs.est.2c02520)
Featured image courtesy of USPS.
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