Will e-trucks deliver your snail mail?

US Postal Service looks to "electrify" its fleet

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

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    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.

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.

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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.

Add to that hurdle a steep upfront cost of up to $10 billion to purchase all new electric vehicles, estimates Wayne Corey, the Postal Service’s manager of vehicle operations. That capital cost, combined with the healthcare payment crisis, makes it politically difficult for the Postal Service to approach Congress for help funding a new fleet, observers say.

“We’re getting lots of advice and ideas these days, but unfortunately not any checks in the mail to go with them,” Mr. Corey says. “Some variant of an electric vehicle would probably work quite nicely in the majority of our operations. But it comes with a significant price tag.”

Still, Postal Service officials admit, the need for new vehicles is growing critical. In one sign of its seriousness, the Postal Service recently issued a formal request for information to identify companies able to convert LLVs to all-electric vehicles.

“At some point in the near future we are going to be looking to replace our fleet with energy-efficient vehicles that would significantly reduce our environmental footprint for the communities we serve,” says Sam Pulcrano, the service’s vice president of sustainability.

The all-electric idea would not be a shot in the dark. The Postal Service today has about 30 larger two-ton all-electric trucks delivering mail in Manhattan. The post office has also experimented with alternative-fuel vehicles for decades, including all-electric, compressed natural gas, fuel-cell, and hybrid gas-electric. While refusing to characterize which worked out best, it’s clear that postal managers do like electric.

“All electric vehicles have some great possibilities for use in particular since most routes average 17 to 18 miles a day and then return to the same depot for charging,” Mr. Pulcrano says. All-electric “is a viable option at this time. We’re looking at the technology.”

Saving gas isn’t the only, or necessarily even the main, motivation for such a shift. With 142,000 delivery vehicles (and more than 60,000 trucks and other vehicles) a battery-powered postal fleet could play a leading role in helping bring more wind, solar, and other “intermittent” renewable energy onto the electric grid, several observers say.

Because the delivery fleet is only used perhaps seven hours a day, the rest of the time they would be plugged in and charging up. Solar panels on postal stations’ rooftops could charge the vans from the sun and be virtually emissions free.

“You’ve got all these trucks storing energy, and solar panels feeding them,” Goldway says. “We could transform the post office sorting centers into a great environmental hub, where vehicles are plugged in and storing energy for the grid. It makes a lot of sense.”

But there’s also the promising possibility that the Postal Service could even make up to $2,500 a year per vehicle if the vehicles can be outfitted with vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology.

That’s because adding V2G capability would allow for the massive 21 billion watt capacity of the vans’
collective batteries to act as a backup for the nation’s power grid. It’s an idea that may be winning converts at the Department of Energy, which has shown interest in a pilot V2G project involving the trucks, postal officials say.

“We see it as a potential revenue source for the Postal Service – a smart grid application on wheels,” says the congressional staffer.

Even competitors might not oppose the idea. Federal Express and UPS currently use the Postal Service for its “last mile” delivery of small packages. If the Postal Service led on electrifying its fleet, the big package carriers could learn from it – and benefit from lower costs as they electrify their own delivery fleets later on.

“I’ve spoken with delivery company officials who would be very happy if the government would sponsor development of a critical mass of demand for this kind of all-electric service,” says James Campbell, a consultant to the package delivery industry. “It’s not a bad idea.”

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