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Tips for Transitioning Fleet Vehicles to Electric

Shows a fleet of mid-sized electric vehicles being charged at a public charging station

Local governments in Washington are in various stages of transitioning some portion of their fleets to electric vehicles (EVs). The reasons for such a move includes a desire to reduce carbon emissions, to show leadership on climate resilience, to save money, and importantly, to comply with RCW 43.19.648, which requires local governments to satisfy all of their fleet fuel usage by electricity or biofuel to the extent practicable as defined in WAC 194-29-070.

The reality is that this transition to an EV fleet is a big change — in cultural, technical, and operational terms. Like any big change it is going to evoke different reactions. Some staff and elected officials are going to be out front, trying to instill a sense of urgency in moving fleet electrification forward, but others are going to be more cautious and reluctant to move forward absent certainty of the outcomes.

This blog will offer a few tips and resources for local governments thinking about or already working on the process of switching fleets over to EVs.

Tips to Ease the Transition

If your agency is ready to prioritize the transition to an electric fleet, then start by thinking of this as a change management project that requires an agency-wide effort.

The first step is to make sure employees understand both the need for change and the agency’s vision for the future. To champion the project, gather a diverse group of staff who can work to identify challenges and to recommend a path forward. You’ll need both enthusiastic visionaries and cautious analysts working together to forge practical solutions.

Washington State University’s (WSU) Green Transportation Program has put together an invaluable document, Milestones for Electrifying Public Fleets, that lays out the steps in the EV transition, including assembling key team members and setting goals.

Start small, think big

Based on the experience of local governments already working on transitioning their fleets to EVs, this process works best when it happens in phases. Most fleet managers are initially focusing on transitioning a specific type of vehicle to electric, such as sedans or small SUV’s. By focusing on transitioning one type of vehicle, you can more quickly assess its capabilities and limitations for driving different distances or for different uses. This will provide baseline data that makes it easier to train employees on proper use of the new EVs as well as manage expectations relative to a gas-powered equivalent vehicle.

A phased timeline for conversion can start with a modest portion of the fleet and then steadily increase the percentage of EVs according to your agency's established goals. Some local governments are phasing in this transition by pursuing multi-pronged procurement strategies: purchasing EVs for some agency uses, targeting hybrid vehicles for other uses, and finding renewable diesel vehicles for trucks and other heavy uses.

In the early stages of the transition, your fleet managers may not have the in-house staff expertise to fully maintain EVs. Some agencies are initially outsourcing EV maintenance by purchasing service warrantees with vehicles or taking the vehicles to a trusted EV mechanic, including dealerships. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Energy, Vehicle Technologies Office estimates that the maintenance costs of EVs is about 40% of the cost to maintain conventional gas-powered vehicles. Studies have shown that EVs require less service because they have fewer moving parts and fluids to change, brake wear is significantly reduced due to regenerative braking, and their electrical systems require minimal maintenance.

Consider procurement options

The current, strong demand for EVs can make it challenging to get vehicles delivered within a short time span. Fleet managers generally know well in advance when a vehicle is going to need to be replaced, and those managers who plan ahead and are open to exploring alternative procurement sources will have greater success in finding the right EV within the time frame needed.

The Washington State Department of Enterprise Services offers some EVs as part of its Contract Vehicle Menu, though these are included along with listings for hybrids and gas-powered vehicles. If in doubt, the complete vehicle description clearly indicates if and when a listing is an EV.

The Climate Mayors EV Purchasing Collaborative is a one-stop, online procurement portal providing local governments across the nation access to competitively bid on EVs and charging infrastructure. WSU Green Transportation Program staff can also assist local governments in identifying sources of EVs.

Finally, buying vehicles from a local dealership may also be a good option for some local governments, since local dealers may already have EVs available for purchase and may have in-house expertise to offer for fleet maintenance.

Plan for EV charging infrastructure build out in collaboration with your electric utility

Convenient access to charging infrastructure is essential for the transition to an EV fleet. Cities, towns, and counties will want to work with their electric utility to determine the optimal siting and electricity upgrades that may be needed for fleet charging stations. By bringing in a utility to the conversation early, an agency can plan well in advance for managing and shifting electric loads to accommodate EV fleets.

Several Washington-based utilities are offering incentives to install charging stations, including Puget Sound Energy, Snohomish PUD, Energy Northwest, and Avista. Additionally, some electric utilities may be able to provide start-up charging infrastructure at no cost.

Local and Tribal governments in rural communities should consider applying for the Washington State Department of Commerce’s (Commerce) Electrification of Transportation System (ETS) grants, which fund the development of EV and hydrogen infrastructure in rural communities. This program is currently accepting applications through March 6, 2023.

Last year, Washington was awarded $70 million in federal funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to build out a statewide charging network along priority transportation corridors. The Washington State Plan for Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Deployment establishes priorities and plans for developing this statewide EV charging network, beginning with major state highways. You can access the plan to see if your community is located along a priority route, known as alternative fuel corridor, and you can also suggest a charging station location using an interactive map from the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Take advantage of helpful resources

The WSU Green Transportation Program is a great resource for local governments transitioning to an EV fleet. The program staff work extensively with local governments and can support your agency in taking the next step in the fleet transition, whether you are just beginning to consider this issue or you are well on your way. The program hosts meetings of the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Technical Assistance Group (AFV-TAG) for public fleet managers, policy makers, and industry stakeholders so that they can share experiences and get updates on funding and other opportunities. Among other resources, WSU offers a green transportation grants page that features current grant opportunities as well as prior programs with information about grantees and awards received.

Commerce is one of the key state agencies leading the effort to meet the state’s goals related to the electrification of transportation. It administers several applicable grant funds, including the ETS grants, cited above, and maintains information related to the Interagency Electric Vehicle Coordinating Council (EV Council), a group that developed the state plan for EV infrastructure deployment and is currently engaged in implementing this strategy.

If you’d like to gain a better understanding of the adequacy of the electric power grid and the planning that is underway to address reliability into the future, the Western Resource Adequacy Program (WRAP) is a good start. WRAP is currently working with electricity providers in Oregon and Washington to develop a reliability planning and compliance program that, it hopes, will eventually cover utilities throughout the West. By taking advantage of operating efficiencies and sharing pool resources, WRAP participants can better prepare resilient local power grids for future needs. Commerce and the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission also report annually, specifically on Washington’s resource adequacy.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Tracy Burrows

About Tracy Burrows

As MRSC’s Executive Director, Tracy seeks out innovations in local government, tracking trends in management and technology that impact your work. She has over 20 years of local government and non-profit experience, specializing in growth management, transportation, and general city management issues.