Require new federal fleet purchases to be half plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles
"Half of all cars purchased by the federal government will be plug-in hybrids or all-electric by 2012."
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"Half of all cars purchased by the federal government will be plug-in hybrids or all-electric by 2012."
During his last presidential bid, Barack Obama committed to modernizing the cars we drive, so our transportation needs don't mean a dependence on foreign oil. He said his policies would promote more hybrids, more vehicles running on biofuels and a revival of the electric car.
Here we'll evaluate his progress on a specific promise from that larger clean-car agenda: Obama said half of all cars purchased by the federal government would be either plug-in hybrids or all-electric by 2012.
The pie chart below comes from annual reports by the General Services Administration on federal vehicle acquisitions. Since the year isn't finished, we can't reference the 2012 report, but the data give enough information to rate this promise. Plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles represent a tiny sliver of overall vehicle acquisitions for Obama's first three years in office -- so tiny, in fact, it's hard to see its thin blue slice in the chart.
You can see a more detailed layout of year-by-year vehicle acquisitions by fuel type below, including the last three years from President George W. Bush's administration. The federal government bought many times more all-electric or plug-in hybrids and many times more conventional hybrids under Obama than under Bush.
|All-electric or plug-in hybrid (e.g. Chevy Volt)
|Conventional hybrid (e.g. Toyota Prius)
|Gasoline or diesel
Obama's pledge focused on plug-in hybrids and electric cars, which accounted for less than 1 percent of all federal vehicle acquisitions in 2011. That's also true across all three years Obama has been in office. Either way, it's a far cry from half.
It's worth noting that the government buys other types of vehicles that do not rely on pure diesel or gasoline: About 45 percent of all vehicle acquisitions in 2011 ran on alternative fuels such as hydrogen, compressed natural gas, liquid petroleum gas or a "flex-fuel" mix that is 85 percent ethanol.
The last time we updated this promise, we mentioned the administration's progress on buying more hybrids. In 2011, gasoline and diesel hybrids -- not the plug-in kind -- accounted for 7 percent of all federal vehicle acquisitions. In the two years before Obama's presidency, hybrids represented less than 1 percent of all vehicle acquisitions.
We wondered why Obama focused on plug-in hybrids (think Chevy Volt), rather than conventional hybrids (think Toyota Prius). Was one really more effective in meeting Obama's clean energy goals?
"It really is a better fuel choice on many levels," said Jay Friedland, director of legislative affairs for the pro-electric car group, Plug In America.
We found evidence to back up Friedland's claim on websites for the U.S. Energy Department's Alternative Fuels Data Center and research lab for renewable energy. The typical plug-in hybrid has a battery that you charge from an outside source, often by plugging it into your house. This battery then powers the car at low speeds over short distances, i.e. city driving. If you turn up the air conditioning, travel long distances or crank up the speedometer, the plug-in's gas-powered internal combustion engine might kick in. So, the gas tank only comes into play when the primary batter is being overtaxed. The Energy Department's research lab for renewable energy says plug-in hybrids consume less fuel and emit less greenhouse gases than stand-alone hybrids.
We think it's worth giving Obama credit for gains he's made in diversifying the federal fleet. Overall hybrid purchases have increased under Obama, and more than half of all vehicles purchased by the federal government last year ran on some kind of alternative fuel. Still, plug-in vehicles represent less than 1 percent of those purchases, nowhere near Obama's campaign pledge. We rate this a Promise Broken.
Email interview with Jay Friedman, director of legislative affairs for Plug In America, Aug. 1, 2012
Interview with Nigel Clark, professor of alternative fuels, emissions and vehicles at West Virginia University, Aug. 2, 2012
U.S. Department of Energy, Alternative Fuels Data Center, Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles
BarackObama.com, Barack Obama and Joe Biden: New energy for America
Autoevolution.com, hybrid vs. plug-in hybrid, July 9, 2009
National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Energy management strategies for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, April 2007
National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Learning about renewable energy, Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles
General Services Administration, 2011 Federal Fleet Report
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised that "half of all cars purchased by the federal government will be plug-in hybrids or all-electric by 2012."
There are more of them now, but Obama's stated goal hasn't been met.
Here's a chart showing vehicle acquisitions by fuel type between 2006 and 2010, published by the General Services Administration, the federal office that oversees the federal vehicle fleet. Numbers for 2011 are not yet available.
|Compressed Natural Gas
|Liquefied Petroleum Gas
The chart illustrates that the administration has made strides in diversifying its fleet.
Purchases of cars that run on E-85, an 85 percent ethanol blend, actually outnumbered purchases of traditional gasoline cars in 2010 for the first time, and the combination of the two oldest technologies -- gasoline and diesel -- accounted for less than half of all purchases in 2010. As recently as 2006, they accounted for 70 percent of all purchases.
But Obama didn't simply promise to move to alternative fuel sources for the federal fleet; he specifically said he would make plug-in hybrids or all-electric vehicles half of new purchases. By that measurement, he's nowhere near his goal. For 2010, hybrids and all-electric vehicles amounted to just under 10 percent of federal vehicle acquisitions.
We don't have the numbers yet for 2011 or 2012 -- and the president's promise did say his promise will be effective by 2012 -- so we won't rule this a Promise Broken yet. But it will be a tough climb getting to the 50 percent threshold for electric or plug-in hybrids in just two years. If he manages to do it, we'll rate it a Promise Kept, but for now, we'll rate it Stalled.
General Services Administration, Federal Fleet Report, 2010
The massive economic stimulus bill gives President Obama an opportunity to make progress on his promises about buying plug-in hybrids or electric cars for the federal fleet.
Signed by Obama on Feb. 17, the stimulus package includes $300 million to buy more "high efficiency motor vehicles" for the federal fleet. That includes hybrids, hybrid plug-ins and all-electric cars.
Remember, though, Obama's promise is not just to convert half the federal fleet purchases to hybrids, but to the ultra fuel-efficient plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV's) or all-electric cars — cars that are still largely on the drawing board.
PHEV's are a combination of the conventional hybrids on the market today, such as the Toyota Prius, and battery electric cars that need to be plugged in and recharged. Some prototypes of these cars get upwards of 100 miles per gallon.
One example of a PHEV is the Chevy Volt, scheduled to hit the market in late 2010. The way these cars work, it would run purely on electricity, without emitting exhaust, for up to 40 miles. Then it would switch over to a gasoline motor, which would also recharge the battery (much as a standard hybrid works today). If you only use the car in a 40-mile range, you never need gas. But there's a combustion engine if you do, so you won"t get stuck on the side of the road should you run out of electricity.
Given that the cars still aren't commercially available, Obama's promise is still a long roadtrip away.
In a joint statement released by House and Senate leaders about the stimulus package, the conferees stated that they "remain hopeful that domestically produced plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles will be commercially available in sufficient quantities before September 30, 2010, such that these funds could be used to acquire this technology for the federal fleet."
In other words, there's a leap of faith here that the industry will be making cars for the government to buy.
Toyota plans to offer a plug-in version of its Prius for fleet sales later this year, said David Sedgwick, editor of Automotive News . And the Chevy Volt, as we said, isn't scheduled to hit the market until late 2010.
Other automakers have said they plan to offer plug-in hybrids or all-electric cars, but whether those will be available soon enough to tap into the stimulus money remains a big question mark.
Furthermore, it's doubtful that $300 million would get Obama anywhere near his goal. Undoubtably, the White House would have preferred the $600 million originally proposed in the House version of the stimulus plan. And here's another wild card: No one really knows yet how much these plug-in or all-electric cars might cost.
"Here's the problem," said Sedgwick. "The Volt could cost as much as 40 grand. Do the math. You could spend a lot of money on the Chevy Volt and not get to half."
Here is the math: $300 million would only get you 7,500 cars at $40,000 each.
In 2008, the General Services Administration purchased 22,827 new passenger vehicles. So that's way short of funding half the new purchases, as Obama promised.
The plug-in version of the Prius may sell in the high 20's, Sedgwick said. At $28,000 per car, we're talking 10,700 cars for $300 million. That comes close to funding half the new purchases as plug ins, but only for one year. The stimulus funding is for two years. Any way you slice it, the $300 million alone just doesn't get Obama to his goal.
Sedgwick is skeptical that he can achieve the goal given the uncertainties. "You're buying a pig in a poke," he said. "No one is selling plug-in hybrids right now. No one has announced their prices yet."
Jay Friedland, legislative director for Plug In America, a nonprofit that advocates for plug in cars, acknowledged that fulfilling the promise will be challenging for Obama.
"It relies on the automakers to come through," Friedland said.
But the stimulus money represents a significant commitment from the Obama administration, he said. "The stimulus gets you halfway there with the federal fleet. He has certainly put the down payments there."
The hope with the stimulus money is, of course, that by converting much of the federal fleet to high-efficiency cars, it will provide a carrot for automakers to more aggressively pursue such vehicles for sale to the general public, and that it will help convince the public to buy them. If a significant portion of the federal fleet is converted to plug in hybrids, that also provides a significant built-in market for automakers.
And there's plenty of other money in the stimulus to encourage automakers to ramp up their plans for plug-in hybrids and electric cars.
According to calculations by Plug In America, there's as much as $12.5 billion in the Democratic-backed stimulus for plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars through tax incentives, grants to automakers, hybrid car rebates and advanced battery manufacturing, a key ingredient in the success of plug in hybrids.
"This creates a big carrot in front of the automakers to get it done," Friedland said.
But if Obama is to reach his goal to convert half the federal fleet to plug-in hybrids or electric cars by 2012, it will require significant investment in coming years' budgets to make it reality, Friedland said.
In other words, Obama has made a significant progress toward fulfilling his promise through the stimulus package, but there's still a lot out of his control — like how fast the auto industry can make such cars commercially available. And the promise will require a lot more federal money in future years. But there's enough in the stimulus for us to move this one to In the Works.
Department of Energy,
Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Federal Fleet Compliance with EPACT and EO 13424
, Fiscal Year 2007
General Services Administration, Federal Fleet Report , Fiscal Year 2008
Taxpayers for Common Sense, Joint Explanatory Statement of the Committee of Conference, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
Interview with David Sedgwick, editor of Automotive News, Feb. 23, 2009
Interview with Jay Friedland, legislative director for Plug In America, Feb. 23, 2009