By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 2009; A31
From horse-drawn wagons to stage coaches, trains and 18-wheelers, the U.S. Postal Service has used virtually every mode of transportation to deliver the mail. But a New York lawmaker says it's time for the mail service to start using at least 20,000 electric vehicles to stamp out the agency's environmental waste.
The Postal Service said it operates the largest civilian fleet of vehicles in the world, with about 220,000 vehicles traveling more than 1.2 billion miles each year. The agency's entire fleet consumed 121 million gallons of fuel in 2008, costing it roughly $1.3 billion, officials said. Agency vehicles average 10.4 miles a gallon since most drive slowly and make frequent stops between mailboxes.
Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) wants to put the postal fleet to use during off-hours to help alleviate the nation's overworked power grids. He introduced a bill Wednesday that would give eventually give $2 billion to the Energy Department and Postal Service to convert current mail trucks or manufacture new ones that use vehicle-to-grid technology or V2G, as it's known.
The technology allows electricity to flow from plug-in electric or battery-powered vehicles to power lines, feeding excess electricity to the vehicles when they're not in use. In this case, postal vehicles would become temporary storage units for electricity. When necessary, power grids could retrieve electricity from the vehicles.
Delaware began rewarding consumers who use V2G this year. It compensates them for electricity sent back to the grid at the same rate they pay for electricity they consume.
An August report by the Postal Service inspector general said Serrano's proposal would be feasible if the government provided funding. The start-up cost for the project would be $65 million, Serrano aides said.
"We have to act quickly to move the USPS to sustainability, both in their operations and for the sake of the environment," said Serrano, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles USPS matters. The Postal Service will lead the world in electric vehicle use if the bill passes, he said. Aides noted that the bill's introduction was timed to coincide with President Obama's trip to Copenhagen for the global climate change conference.
The Postal Service knows firsthand about the effect of the "green" movement. Revenue and mail volume have dropped significantly in recent years as Americans opt for eco-friendly, paperless online options.
"There is no better time for this move, and I look forward to making it happen," Serrano said.
The Postal Service first experimented with electric vehicles in 1899 as it started to phase out the horse and buggy, spokeswoman Sue Brennan said. Serrano's proposal is one of several that would make the postal fleet more eco-friendly, and the Postal Service is testing several electric or hybrid vehicles, Brennan said.
Thirty electric vans transport the mail to processing facilities near Serrano's district in New York City. More than 43,000 mail vehicles can run on alternative fuels, and 584 ethanol-powered trucks are in use in Minnesota, Brennan said. Some mail carriers in Arizona and Florida use bicycles to make deliveries, while other carriers in those states, California and the District have tested three-wheel electric vehicles. The T3 battery-powered vehicles can reach speeds of 12 miles an hour and carry a maximum 450 pounds of mail. Mail carriers have also tested hybrid vans produced by Ford and General Motors.
"This legislation uses the unique characteristics of the Postal Service's existing transportation network to rapidly increase the market for electric vehicles in the United States," said Ruth Y. Goldway, chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission. "It provides well-deserved support for the Postal Service and a reasoned plan for the simultaneous development of the electric grid and non-polluting automobiles."
The idea has also gotten a nod from organized labor.
"We'd be totally supportive," said James Sauber, chief of staff at the National Association of Letter Carriers.
"Considering the severity of the recession, it would be a win-win," Sauber added.