By David Iaconangelo
A landmark executive order issued by President Biden last month seeks to use the federal government’s purchasing power for vehicles and electricity as a way to stoke massive demand for clean energy — but some say it may run up against a brick wall.
The Jan. 27 order on climate change gives the heads of three federal agencies — the Council on Environmental Quality, General Services Administration, and Office of Management and Budget — 90 days to develop a new governmentwide plan for clean energy procurements. The strategy is meant to facilitate Biden’s goal of a 100% carbon-free power sector by 2035 and provide a jolt of demand for zero-emission vehicles, while “spurring the creation of union jobs” in the automotive sector, according to the order.
The federal purchasing strategy may have added significance in that Biden has a limited number of moves to reach his 2035 goal without Congress, according to Gene Grace, general counsel at the American Clean Power Association.
“He only has so many tools in the toolbox. One of the biggest is the federal procurement one,” Grace said.
Electric car and renewable power advocates reacted with full-throated approval to the plan, predicting it would throw the “immense purchasing power” of federal agencies behind their industries. About 640,000 vehicles are in the federal fleet, for example, along with some 350,000 buildings.
“[T]he Obama administration pushed very, very hard for fleet electrification as well,” wrote Sam Ori, executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, in a Jan. 28 post on Twitter. President George W. Bush also called for federal fleet managers to buy plug-in hybrids in an executive order as far back as 2007, he noted.
The picture is similar for the costs of wind and solar power, along with the lithium-ion batteries that back them as storage assets. But given the humble size of the United States’ EV market, federal procurements could prove especially meaningful as a near-term source of demand, said Ori. About 296,000 EVs were sold in the United States in 2020, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics.
“If federal agencies buy tens of thousands of EVs per year, that could have an impact,” he said. “With the size of the market right now, that’s not insignificant.”
“It’s an interesting goal,” added Ori, in reference to Biden’s orders. “I think there’s some value in it. But it’s going to be very hard to do.”