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Houston Falling Short of City’s 2030 Electric Vehicle Goals

Houston is unlikely to meet its climate action goal of phasing out gas-powered vehicles, with just 49 electric and hybrid cars added to its 13,000-vehicle fleet over the past two years, an official said.

The Houston skyline with the sun just above the horizon reflected in the buildings.
(TNS) — Houston is unlikely to meet its climate action goal of phasing out gas-powered vehicles, with just 49 electric and hybrid cars added to its 13,000-vehicle fleet over the past two years, according to Fleet Management Director Gary Glasscock.

In 2020, former Mayor Sylvester Turner unveiled a series of long-range goals to curb greenhouse gas emissions and combat the adverse effects of climate change. The plan included a bold target for Houston to electrify all non-emergency, light-duty city vehicles within a decade.

As of February, however, the city only operates 91 battery electric vehicles, 325 hybrid electric vehicles, and three plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, a recent memo from Glasscock to other city officials shows. Together, they make up just over 10% of all non-emergency, light-duty cars, which fluctuates between 3,500 and 4,000 vehicles, Glasscock said.

Glasscock warned in the memo that at the current pace, it would be "very difficult" to reach the city's target by 2030. He pointed to limited vehicle and charger availability during the COVID-19 pandemic as a key obstacle. There were a few instances where manufacturers canceled orders or took over a year to fulfill them, he said.

"The goal was set with market conditions that existed prior to the pandemic," Glasscock told the Chronicle, adding that the city has ordered more electric and hybrid cars that will arrive in the coming weeks and months. "We've got to make some adjustments, and hopefully production by the manufacturers will increase, and we will be able to get back on track."

City Council on Wednesday unanimously greenlit the purchase of 32 new gas-powered vehicles — a mix of light-duty police cars and municipal trucks and vans — after District C Council Member Abbie Kamin delayed the vote last week.

Kamin, a consistent advocate for a green fleet, previously noted many supply-side challenges affecting EV acquisition also apply to gas-powered cars. She urged fleet management officials to broaden their search for new hybrid or EV models and highlighted, specifically, the possibility of investing in energy-efficient police cars.

"A lot of the challenges that we're facing in procurement, I believe, can possibly be avoided," Kamin said on Wednesday. "We need a bigger pool to choose from when it comes to where we are buying our goods from that directly will save the city money in the long run and are the right thing to do."

While the city's current climate action plan does not specifically target emergency vehicles, Glasscock acknowledged that adopting hybrid police cars could lead to significant cost savings, given their extensive use.

Due to a grant deadline, Glasscock said his team could not find a suitable model for the latest police vehicle purchases in time. But the department has already ordered several hybrid patrol cars and is waiting for their arrival.

"Once we get these vehicles in, we get them out in the field, and our police department gets to really test them. If they work out, well, we can start going down that path," he said.

Recent research shows local and state governments in Texas could save nearly $865 million in lifetime costs if they acquire electric replacements for vehicles retired in the next 10 years.

Despite the financial advantages, Texas governments have generally been slow to incorporate EVs into their fleets, said Richard "Buzz" Smith, interim executive director of Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance.

"They're spending taxpayer dollars, so they probably are a lot more nervous about trying something new than just an everyday driver," Smith said. "We've got to educate the fleet managers, and we've got to get training set up for the service technicians to learn this new way of doing business."

Texas is now a frontrunner in EV adoption, ranking third in the nation with 149,000 new registrations in 2022, trailing only California and Florida, statistics from the Department of Energy show. Still, Texas laws make it difficult for cities like Houston to electrify their fleets, according to Marc Geller, spokesperson for the Electric Vehicle Association.

Automakers prefer to send electric cars to states with friendlier policies, like California, leaving fewer options for Texas consumers, he said. At the same time, state law requires local governments to purchase only from licensed Texas dealers, preventing them from buying directly from producers like Tesla that sell directly to customers.

"You're caught between the American manufacturers not making cars available to you in Texas ... and a prohibition on purchasing cars from the company that has more cars than they know what to do with," Geller said. "There has to be a political fight with the Texas Legislature."

New Mayor John Whitmire did not respond to questions about his stance on Houston's current climate action targets or his administration's environmental goals. Mary Benton, spokesperson for the mayor's office, said Whitmire is in the process of reviewing the city's big-picture projects and priorities.

Geller said he has seen many cases where changes in government administrations have resulted in disruption in the pursuit of long-term climate goals, and it is up to other city officials as well as local advocates to hold new leaders accountable.

"You need politicians to feel that there's a cost to be paid for not following through," he said.

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