Government researchers have confirmed the ideal testing ground for electric cars: the U.S. Postal Service. Now all they have to do is find the money to pay for it.
The Postal Service is $7 billion in the hole for fiscal year 2009 and simply can't free up substantial cash for an EV trial. The most sensible solution is for the Department of Energy to provide capital costs of $138 million to support an initial launch of 3,000 cars, the research finds.
It seems it would be in the interest of the nation to do so.
Some 6,800 boxy delivery vans in the Postal Service's aging fleet are nearing the end of their service life and must be replaced anyway. Delivery routes are short. Typically, they cover just 18 miles per day – a distance that current battery technology can easily meet. And the vehicles won't tax the national grid. In fact, they could even improve it, with the batteries acting as grid regulators.
During heavy peak daytime loads, the cars would be off delivering mail. Off-peak in the wee hours, they'd be plugged in, powering up when overall demand is low and storing electricity that could be fed back into the grid if needed.
On top of that, mail delivery vehicles require stop-and-go driving at low speeds, averaging some 400 stops a day. In gas-powered cars, that adds up to massive fuel consumption. But with electric motors, it's an excellent opportunity for regenerative breaking to recapture energy. The report estimates that each EV could save the government $1,500 a year in gas alone.
Best yet is that Post Service deliveries reach every household in every region. Meaning, these cars could offer a national lab in all climates and terrain conditions.
The study, U.S. Postal Service: Electrification of Delivery Vehicles, was published by the Office of the Inspector General in response to a request from Congressman José E. Serrano. Its best case scenario is for the agency to phase in the 3,000 EVs, all the while helping to demonstrate the nation's promising vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, which still remains largely theoretical.
V2G technology creates a system in which electricity stored in the batteries can be sold to utilities when the cars are plugged in. On the flip side, when the batteries need to be charged, electricity can flow from the grid and back to the car.
In this way, the battery acts as a kind of sponge for the grid operator – at times, storing surplus power, while at other times supplying it to the grid when a surge in demand requires it.
Currently, about 20 percent of the Postal Service delivery fleet is in an area which offers V2G. The Postal Service could become an early adopter of the technology and generate revenue in the process.
According to the study, V2G technology could make electric cars economically attractive for the Post Service in a relatively short time. But without federal government assistance or V2G revenue, the Postal Service won't realize its required rate of return.
"If ... the upfront capital cost is overcome by participation in DOE-funded demonstration programs and V2G revenue is captured, the return increases to 63.2 percent with the agency breaking even within the first 2 years that EVs are in operation," the report finds.
The report's general findings are confirmed by a May study by U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission staff member Michael Ravnitzky, who concluded:
"Electrification of the postal fleet should be an integral part of the nation's energy goals. ... [It] could significantly reduce gasoline and maintenance expenses while reducing the fleet's carbon footprint.
Furthermore, the postal operator can earn substantial revenue in the wholesale electric markets by aggregating and offering on the wholesale electric market access to ancillary electric power from the vehicle batteries."
So what are the odds of the Post Service getting needed dollars to get the trial off the ground?
The report says there are competitive funding opportunities available with the DOE's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, as part of the funds flowing from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Grants are available for individual agencies of up to $100 million for smart grid demonstrations and $50 million for utility load shifting, with 50 percent cost sharing.
If the feds don't come through, there are always the states. California has been the largest provider of such incentives. Washington state, New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania are other possibilities, along with other state support programs. In total, these programs represent approximately $12 billion in funding that states are currently applying for, the report says.
Giving a slice of those billions to the U.S. Postal Service would go a long way in cleaning up one of the largest transportation fleets in the world, and in providing a much-needed spark to America's still sleepy electric car market.