Leading by example? RI quietly extends time to meet zero-emission target for state fleet

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The state has struggled to reach zero-emission goals for its own fleet of vehicles, as cost, supply and unwillingness by some departments to purchase all-electric and hybrid vehicles have left Rhode Island significantly short of hitting its initial target.

Those goals were first established under former Gov. Gina Raimondo and modified four months ago by her successor, Gov. Dan McKee.

A four-month investigation by The Hummel Report that included a review of the entire fleet of nearly 2,500 vehicles found that state agencies have purchased only six all-electric and 75 plug-in hybrids since 2015. That translates to 9.4% of the 858 light-duty vehicles the state acquired, vehicles that are targeted under an executive order issued by Raimondo eight years ago.

A plug-in Jeep Cherokee, part of Rhode Island's push for zero-emission vehicles, charges in the DOT parking garage.
A plug-in Jeep Cherokee, part of Rhode Island's push for zero-emission vehicles, charges in the DOT parking garage.

That order – dubbed Lead By Example and signed by Raimondo on Dec. 8, 2015 – called for 25% of the state government’s light-duty vehicles to be zero-emission by 2025. McKee quietly issued a new executive order in May giving the state five more years to reach the 25% goal, although the administration insists it wasn’t moving the goalposts.

The Hummel Report also discovered that McKee’s advance man, Ronald Desiderato Jr., exchanged his state-provided 2013 Chevy Tahoe hybrid in mid-April for a 2022 Jeep Wagoneer with a $76,935 price tag. It has a V8 gasoline engine that gets 17 miles per gallon and rates poorly on the federal greenhouse gas rating.

Desiderato is a familiar face at the governor’s public events and has driven top elected officials for decades. He arrives early to block off parking for McKee and his driver with orange cones and set up a podium when needed. The Hummel Report also found that the Wagoneer was retrofitted with red and blue emergency lights at an additional cost to the taxpayers of $3,000. The lights were not approved by the Division of Motor Vehicles, which needs to issue a permit if the lights are not for a law enforcement vehicle.

Every lightweight vehicle that the state acquires (8,500 pounds or under, about a third of the entire fleet) is expected to be zero-emission. If it isn’t, the department or agency buying it needs to submit a waiver to the Division of Capital Asset & Management with a reason why. But we found that the division has never rejected a waiver request, and neither Raimondo’s nor McKee’s executive orders carries a penalty for noncompliance.

“There’s work to do to make sure that we’re reaching those goals,” McKee said during a recent interview. “What I see happening, though, right now is that the acceleration of this technology is really going to make up [for] the slow start.”

Asked if he thought Desiderato, who attends virtually every public appearance the governor makes outside the State House, should be driving a plug-in hybrid to “lead by example,” McKee responded: “That’s a fair question.”

An ambitious order that has lagged in implementation

Lead By Example – executive order 15-17, signed by Raimondo 11 months after she was first sworn in as governor – was a far-reaching directive. It set ambitious goals not only for state vehicles, but called for a reduction in fossil fuel consumption at state facilities and the installation of renewable energy sources on state properties. The order noted that the state spent $35 million on energy in 2014.

But a review of spreadsheets provided by the Department of Administration shows that the state did virtually nothing to move toward zero-emission vehicles in the first three years of Raimondo’s tenure as governor. Simply defined: to qualify under the executive order, vehicles have to have a plug, either all-electric or plug-in hybrid, modeled after the state of California.

Since 2015, 44% of light-duty vehicles acquired by the state have been gasoline-powered; 31.5% are considered  "flexible fuel" (gas or ethanol); and 14.5% are non plug-in hybrids. Six vehicles are diesel. And just under 10% are considered zero-emission.

John McCoy, the director of security for the Department of Administration who also oversees the state fleet, said it has been a challenge because there is no centralized oversight for acquisition of state vehicles. Each agency purchases vehicles out of its own budget.

“The struggle has been getting the vehicles that we want that will meet the needs of our agencies,” McCoy said, adding that if a department asks for a waiver, he’ll have a conversation with them.

McCoy said: “In discussions with those agencies based on the circumstances – I hate to call it a barter –  but it’s kind of like, look: We’ll give you these vehicles now if you work with us on the next purchase and buy more zero emission. In reality, we’re still waiting for the dividend of that deal to come our way for zero emissions.”

More: Give up your gas car? What to know as RI moves to phase out sales of gas-powered vehicles

McCoy said the state is starting to move in a good direction: Of the 66 vehicles it has purchased so far this year, 12 – or 18% percent – are zero emission. And since 2021, 38 out of 138 new light-duty vehicles – 27.5% – have been plug-in hybrid or all-electric. He expects that percentage will continue to increase.

Some of the hesitancy stems from range anxiety with the hybrids. McCoy, who is from Pennsylvania, said that should not be as much of a problem in a state the size of Rhode Island. Plug-in hybrids run on a battery if charged, with gasoline as a backup that also charges the battery, McCoy said, adding: “But if you do not have the charging infrastructure, you can still use it. You’re not dead in the water.”

Attorney General Peter F. Neronha has discovered that firsthand. He uses a state-issued 2023 Jeep Cherokee plug-in hybrid that his department purchased from the Department of Administration with asset-forfeiture funds. Neronha said he can make the 30-mile drive to the office from his home in Jamestown on a single charge. He has a slow charger at his home and uses a faster charger at the attorney general’s office, and he said he rarely has to put gasoline in the car.

McKee quietly extends time for state to hit zero-emission target

In May, McKee made national news when he announced plans for Rhode Island to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars in Rhode Island in 2035.

A release from the governor’s office at the time said: “With transportation causing around 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and The Act of Climate mandating that Rhode Island achieve net-zero (greenhouse gas) emissions by 2050, the regulations would require that manufacturers will deliver clean vehicles to Rhode Island consumers.”

The proposal doesn’t ban the use of gas-powered vehicles in Rhode Island, only the sale of new vehicles within its borders, which the administration is hoping will put pressure on manufacturers to produce more zero-emission vehicles. McCoy said he expects the prices will drop also, as the industry moves away from gasoline-powered vehicles.

“Historically I don’t think we’ve had the demand in New England for vehicles of this type – particularly for fleet level – that they may have had in Arizona, New Mexico, California,” McCoy said. “But I think that’s changing.”

What didn’t get the same headlines as the gasoline-vehicle restriction was a new four-page executive order that McKee signed the day before, replacing Raimondo’s 2015 order.  It set new goals for reducing the state’s carbon footprint, giving officials five more years to meet the 25% target for zero-emission vehicles.

More: RI moves closer to passing nation's most aggressive law on renewable energy

So why a new executive order?

“Let’s have a fresh updated, new executive order going through 2030 to reflect the new administration’s priorities,” said Christopher Kearns, commissioner of the Office of Energy Resources, recalling discussions around the new directives.

He and McCoy spoke at length with The Hummel Report at the Department of Administration earlier this month. Kearns was adamant that the state did not ease the requirements by extending the 25% target to 2030.

Kearns said Raimondo’s order specified that 25% of purchased or leased vehicles should be zero-emission by 2025, while McKee’s order says that 25% of the entire light-duty fleet should be zero-emission by 2030. Whatever the metric, the state has a lot of work to do.

“The 25% is not a softball,” McCoy said. “It’s not a hit out of the park. We’ll have to work to get there.” He noted that the state has already made a large purchase of zero-emission vehicles that would count toward the goal, but supply issues have delayed delivery until later this fall.

“I don’t know what was available when I came in, but a lot more is available today on the market in terms of electric and hybrid,” McKee told The Hummel Report. “The way I look at it is we want to follow the technology right on the bumper, up against it, and as that accelerates, we need to stay close to the bumper and make sure we’re responding based on what is happening. This particular order, we’re going to be leading by example.”

Stumbling blocks: Supply limitations, cost, charging availability

A request for vehicles by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation in late 2022 underscores the challenge of meeting the zero-emission goal. The DOT wanted to purchase two dozen SUVs. They were hybrid, but not plug-in, so the department needed to request a waiver.

But the DOT wanted the SUVs to be retrofitted as "police package vehicles" to mimic SUVs used by the Rhode Island State Police, going so far as to ask that two be painted with the trademark state police gray, with a plate on the rear hatch that says “Police Interceptor.”

The Department of Administration questioned the waiver. The DOT responded that it needed the vehicles to be used by construction personnel in the field and that passenger vehicles would not work. The DOT added that it wanted the SUVs because there were not enough state police vehicles to staff construction sites.

But the manufacturer, Ford Motor Company, said it could not meet the full order and only supplied two, including one in the state police gray. When they arrived, there was grumbling among other law enforcement agencies that the DOT would be trying to look like the state police, so the department gave up on the entire order and sent the two gray vehicles to the state police.

In an email on Dec. 28, DOT Chief Engineer Robert Rocchio wrote to David Patten, who at the time was director of the Division of Capital Asset & Management, “Please know that all future orders will be for electric and plug-in hybrid passenger, SUV, and light-duty pickup vehicles. Waivers will only be requested when such vehicles are unavailable.”

McCoy said another issue is cost, and whether a department or agency is willing to shell out significantly more for a zero-emission vehicle when facing budget constraints. He said the Ford Lightning pickup truck costs close to $100,000. “I have agencies that are not going to buy that," he said. "It’s  just not practical.”

As a result, the DOT has purchased more than a dozen Subaru Crosstreks, a plug-in hybrid that costs around $35,000. The Crosstreks get up to 90 miles per gallon and have a total range of nearly 500 miles, with off-road capability.

One of the Department of Transportation's Subaru Crosstreks gets a charge in the DOT garage. The $35,000 plug-in hybrids get up to 90 miles per gallon and have a range of nearly 500 miles.
One of the Department of Transportation's Subaru Crosstreks gets a charge in the DOT garage. The $35,000 plug-in hybrids get up to 90 miles per gallon and have a range of nearly 500 miles.

Some manufacturers are also moving to all-electric. McCoy said he has met with representatives from Ford and GM, who told him they are no longer making the plug-in hybrids; the companies are moving to electric only.

Then there’s the issue of charging availability. “DCYF loves the [Toyota] van because they have to have seven-passenger vans, [for] picking up kids,” McCoy said. “Toyota makes a plug-in electric hybrid Sienna. It meets our needs, but DCYF is in leased space that doesn’t always have the charging infrastructure.”

McCoy said there is also a 165- to 170-day lag time in getting them.

McKee says he is confident that Rhode Island will meet its zero-emission goal over the next seven years, noting that the state is spending more than $25 million on charging stations so the infrastructure will keep pace with acquisitions – not only by the government, but by the public as well.

“You need to have access to charging stations if we expect the general population to get engaged in these type of vehicles, and the same will be true with the state,” the governor said. “It’s my job to make sure that we meet the goals, and I feel comfortable that we will.”

Kearns added:  “Ultimately, we want to be as aggressive as possible with our executive orders and our energy objectives, but we also want to be realistic.”

Why does the governor's advance man need emergency lights?

Meanwhile, the DMV said that Desiderato, who makes $85,500 a year, did not obtain the necessary waiver for emergency lights on his Wagoneer; they were approved by the governor’s chief of staff, Antonio Afonso Jr.  “We understand he will submit the request for that permit to the Division of Motor Vehicles as quickly as possible,” a DMV spokesman said in an email to The Hummel Report on Monday.

In order to comply with state law, the lights were changed to white several weeks ago for an additional cost to the taxpayers of $250.

Why does Desiderato need emergency lights?

On Tuesday, the governor’s press secretary responded in an email: “The Jeep Wagoneer is equipped with emergency lights to be distinguished from other vehicles in situations such as during a State of Emergency (ex. hurricane, blizzard), operating in a motorcade, or when, for safety reasons, the vehicle is being operated on closed roads where pedestrians may be (for example, a parade).”

On Wednesday, the governor's office said that, upon further reflection, it did not believe Desiderato needed emergency lights, and that they would be removed.

The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to HummelReport.org. Reach Jim at Jim@HummelReport.org.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI struggling to meet ambitious zero-emissions target for state fleet