Under new law, some of Virginia’s government fleet is poised to go electric

Rare bipartisan support for state decisions based on ‘total cost of ownership’ rather than sticker price

By: - June 17, 2022 12:01 am
electric vehicle charging station Henrico

The Biden administration’s goal to have half of all U.S. vehicles be electric by 2030, will require increased production of minerals such as lithium, nickel and cobalt used in batteries. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

A new state law could jump-start the conversion of much of Virginia’s government vehicle fleet from gas-powered to electric cars by asking state officials to look at a vehicle’s lifetime costs rather than just its sticker price before buying. 

“We believe this will drive more electric vehicles out there,” Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg and the law’s patron, told a Senate panel this winter. “We believe it will save money for governments.” 

Virginia lawmakers remain divided on party lines when it comes to incentivizing electric vehicle purchases or adopting California-developed vehicle standards that aim to push manufacturers away from the internal combustion engine. 

But during this year’s legislative session, they unanimously agreed to Mason’s Senate Bill 575, a measure signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin that orders many state agencies to buy or lease electric cars rather than gas-powered ones unless a lifetime cost calculator “clearly indicates” that the gas version is cheaper. 

“You really are going after pure economic analysis in comparing these vehicles before they’re being purchased,” said Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, during committee hearings. 

“That’s the gig,” Mason replied. “It’s not really a focus on electric vehicles as much as it is which costs less to operate over the period of time you’re going to operate it.” 

Electric vehicles — and increasing the number of them on Virginia’s roads — nevertheless were the driving force behind the legislation, which was signed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin this May. 

In 2021, Democrats, then in control of both chambers of the General Assembly, pushed through several laws designed to speed up transportation electrification as part of the party’s efforts to combat climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation is responsible for roughly half of Virginia’s carbon emissions. 

One of the most significant measures was a law tying Virginia to California’s “Clean Cars” standards that not only set stricter rules for vehicle emissions than the federal government mandates but also require a certain proportion of the cars manufacturers sell to Virginia dealers to be electric. 

Republicans have denounced the move as unnecessary government interference in the marketplace and have alternatively sought to either repeal it or delay its implementation.  

Going into the 2022 session, with Republicans newly in control of the executive branch and the House of Delegates, environmental groups sought to find ways to “move forward” on electrification, said Kim Jemaine, policy director for clean energy business group Advanced Energy Economy. 

Electrifying state-used vehicles was a top priority. 

Converting government fleets “allows the state to lead by example,” said Lena Lewis, energy and climate policy manager for the Virginia chapter of the Nature Conservancy. 

“We think it will have a magnifier effect,” she said. “Not only will it be good for the state’s fiscal bottom line, but it will also help the public see that electric vehicles are a viable option for them.” 

The idea has caught on elsewhere in the U.S. Earlier this year, the Connecticut legislature voted to make the state’s fleet electric by 2030. Massachusetts’ governor has issued an executive order requiring rising percentages of the government’s fleet to be zero-emission every decade. Illinois established a work group to examine how to expand the rollout of electric vehicles for state agencies, including through the use of a “total cost of ownership” calculator. 

In Virginia, former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam had considered issuing an executive order to begin transitioning the state fleet off gas-powered models during his administration, but his plans never came to fruition. 

The legislation that emerged instead during the 2022 session will require the lifetime cost calculator to be used in making replacement decisions for all government-used light-duty vehicles, or those under 14,000 pounds. A work group will be set up to look at how the approach can be extended to the replacement of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. 

Law enforcement and emergency response vehicles were “preemptively exempted” from the requirement “because we knew that was going to be a hindrance,” said Jemaine. 

Lewis said some law enforcement agencies in other parts of the country are going electric, and “we expect over time that will work more and more in Virginia. But we figured this bill would be more easily accepted if we didn’t make that a requirement.” 

While vehicles will only be replaced as needed, the law is poised to put thousands more electric cars on Virginia roads. 

Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles said the state either owns or leases more than 25,000 cars, although only a percentage of those will be subject to the new legislation. The Department of General Services’ fleet contains over 3,700 vehicles, according to spokesperson Dena Potter, and Jemaine said according to her calculations, roughly 12,000 cars will eventually be eligible for replacement with electric versions.

Chris Bast, director of EV infrastructure investments for the Electrification Coalition and former deputy director of the Department of Environmental Quality under Northam, said other states and even federal officials are looking to the Virginia legislation as a potential model. 

“Electric vehicles have always saved you on operations and maintenance, including fuel costs,” he said. Converting taxpayer-supported fleets is “commonsense government efficiency.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.