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Philadelphia Will Shift Its Fleet to EVs to Meet Carbon Goals

Philadelphia will begin the process of transitioning its fleet of more than 5,500 vehicles to electric. The transition comes as the city moves forward with a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Aerial view over the neighborhoods and streets of Philadelphia, Pa.
Shutterstock/Real Window Creative
The city of Philadelphia plans to transition its municipal fleet to mostly electric vehicles as part of a plan for city operations to be carbon neutral by 2050.

The move by Philadelphia reflects the quickly evolving electric vehicle landscape which includes a continuously expanding selection of vehicle options, battery types and use cases. Moving in tandem with the evolution of EVs is the mandate many cities have given themselves to become more sustainable, with policy directions to directly curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“We like to lead by example, where we can,” said Christine Knapp, director of the Office of Sustainability in Philadelphia. “We don’t like to be asking others to take actions that we ourselves aren’t ready to do.”

Transportation makes up 13 percent of Philadelphia’s carbon emissions. The city operates some 5,500 vehicles. Aside from the greenhouse gas considerations, Philadelphia’s move is rooted in cost-consciousness as well. The city expects to save $2.5 million in operational costs between now and 2030, according to the Municipal Clean Fleet Plan.

A significant part of the plan is laying out the strategy for implementation, because buying the cars is the easy part. More complicated is coordinating and deploying the needed charging infrastructure.

“That’s really the critical piece of all this,” said Knapp.

“We can certainly switch from purchasing one type of vehicle to purchasing another type of vehicle. That is really not the challenge,” she added. “The challenge is, do we have the infrastructure needed to support them.”

Rolling out the needed charging infrastructure becomes a citywide coordination when considering the charging units are generally attached to buildings, which in turn may need electric load upgrades.

The coordination also involves the city’s energy office, the Office of Innovation and Technology, fleet services, transportation and streets department, among others.

“So it brings all these folks to the table,” said Knapp.

One of the recommendations in the plan is to bring all of these divisions together to establish a “clean fleet committee” to handle the planning and coordination of the infrastructure.

“It doesn’t really fit neatly under any one department’s responsibility, so it really does need to be better coordinated and staffed,” said Knapp.

The plan also takes into consideration some of today’s realities. For example, EV technology is mostly centered on light-duty cars and trucks. Medium- and heavy-duty vehicles like garbage trucks have been slower to adapt.

“For right now, the plan is recommending that we sort of hold off on making big purchases of medium and large fleet vehicles because the electric market is just less developed and mature.”

Philadelphia operates a number of compressed natural gas (CNG) powered vehicles, and has a fueling station for them.

“So the idea is to sort of maximize that investment and move more of our diesel sanitation vehicles to CNG in the short term, while we’re waiting for the electric market there to more fully develop,” Knapp explained.

Other cities are closely eyeing the development of EVs to serve sanitation, police and fire needs. Officials in Clearwater, Fla., recently put on hold plans to develop a CNG fueling station for its fleet of garbage trucks.

“We’ve literally shelved the design and the plans to build the CNG station at our yard, in anticipation of transitioning to electric vehicles for the solid waste fleet over the next 10 years,” said Bryant Johnson, assistant director of solid waste and general services in Clearwater, Fla., speaking on a panel last week at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo in the Washington, D.C., area.

Johnson learned about the rapid developments in electric sanitation truck technology after seeing a presentation around a program in New York City to transition garbage trucks to electric.

“I said, ‘oh, time out.’ We’re about to build this multimillion-dollar facility to fuel 70-plus vehicles, and I might be starting another transition. And it looks like we are going to be starting another transition because the technology is moving very quickly,” said Johnson.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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