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Will e-trucks deliver your snail mail?

US Postal Service looks to "electrify" its fleet

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / June 2, 2009

Another alternative: Mail carrier Rozier Wair loaded a leased General Motors fuel-cell vehicle near Washington, D.C., in 2004 – the first commercial application of that technology in the US.

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That familiar stop-and-go growl of a US Postal Service van schleping down the street, gulping a gallon every nine miles as it delivers the nation’s mail, may soon be a sound of the past.

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With gas costs biting and an aging American mail fleet nearing the end of its road, the idea of transforming the nation’s largest public parade of gas guzzlers into an environmentally friendly 21st-century fleet is winning buzz and backers in Congress and the Obama administration.

More than a century after it unveiled an all-electric van that halved mail delivery times – then dumped the idea for gas-powered vehicles – the Postal Service is again looking seriously at electric-powered delivery.

Besides saving hundreds of millions of dollars in gasoline costs, switching the nation’s 142,000 postal vehicles over to battery power could boost electric-truck development nationwide and provide clean mail delivery for the next century, a new federal study has found.

“Electrification of the Postal Service delivery vehicle fleet is practical, achievable, and desirable, and should be initiated now,” concludes a draft study of the vehicle-electrification idea for the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC), a five-member body that advises the Postal Service.

In a newspaper opinion article last February, Ruth Goldway, the PRC commissioner who initiated the study, argued the time had come for the Postal Service to replace its fleet and go electric. All-electric vans have been tested by the Postal Service and “seem ideally suited” for the Postal Service’s relatively short 20- to 25-mile routes, she says in an interview.

From mail sent by stagecoach, train, and later airplanes, the Postal Service has long been a partner in developing the economy, Ms. Goldway says. An all-electric fleet could help establish a market for electric-vehicle parts and batteries just as US vehiclemakers are ramping up to make plug-in hybrid electric and all-electric consumer vehicles.

“This next step of all-electric mail delivery would fit beautifully with that historic record of the Postal Service,” she says. “It would stimulate electric-vehicle technology growth for the rest of country.”

The current postal delivery fleet of squat, white-red-and-blue “Long Life Vehicles,” or LLV vans, is rated at 18.5 miles per gallon. Yet stop-and-go between mailboxes slashes the real-world number to about half that, dipping to the m.p.g. of a Hummer. And with 1.2 billion miles traveled each year, air pollution is considerable.

Switching to all-electric with regenerative brakes, which make a virtue of stopping and return power to the batteries, would immediately save 68 million gallons of fuel annually, the PRC study says. All-electric delivery would cost just 8 to 12 cents overall per mile, compared with 20 to 25 cents per mile for the current gas-powered delivery vehicles at today’s gas prices.

From Postal Service officials to members of Congress, the idea of electrifying the postal delivery fleet seems to be getting some consideration and producing at least a little buzz inside the Beltway.

“We love it and think it’s the way to go,” says a congressional staffer whose boss strongly favors an all-electric postal delivery van. “We think this will jump-start the electric-truck manufacturing in this country.” The staffer requested anonymity because he did not have permission to speak publicly.

But as alluring as the all-electric idea sounds, the Postal Service today is committed to preserving an aging fleet of LLVs whose oldest members date to 1987. The agency recently decided to keep the LLVs for another five to seven years – stretching many beyond their expected lifetimes.

Caught between declining mail volume and a major drop in revenue, the Postal Service has said little about its fleet needs, in part because it has a far more dire issue: looming healthcare payments. The agency needs Congress’s permission to slash some of the $5 billion-plus annual payments to an employee healthcare fund approved during better economic times.