Book: Hybrid, Electric Vehicles Are No Better Than Regular Cars
The case for green cars has been made at length and in detail elsewhere. What doesn’t get covered too frequently, however, is the other side. So let’s take a look at claims made by University of California, Berkeley visiting scholar Ozzie Zehner in his new book, Green Illusions, which cast “numerous hidden side effects of hybrid and electric cars, such as the Tesla, [Nissan] Leaf, Fisker Karma and [Toyota] Prius,” according to the book’s publisher.
Instead of simply focusing on how much gasoline that the cars require, Zehner’s book considered mining impacts, toxins, energy use, suburban sprawl and carbon footprints of production to give a more rounded, complete picture of HEVs and their overall environmental impact performance.
Bear in mind that, pro- or anti-HEVs, nothing in this world is completely good or bad (although golden retrievers do come close), so you can be the cheeriest pom-pom-waving HEV booster but still have to admit that there still are a few areas to work on.
And Zehner is no contrarian right-wing anti-green squeaker. He doesn’t like the government subsidizing electric cars not because he’s anti-green but because he thinks the smarter way to support sustainable urban design policies is by walking, bicycling and using public transit and to get people away from car-based lifestyles. The guy holds a position at Cal-Berkeley after all.
In fact, Zehner says “if Congress is serious about cutting costs, it may eventually have to stand up to thirsty car-culture lobbies and back infrastructure that pays durable dividends.”
The Prius suffered a battering a few years ago when it was revealed that the nickel contained in its battery was mined and smelted at a plant in Ontario that has caused so much environmental damage to the surrounding environment that NASA has used the “dead zone” around the plant to test moon rovers. The plant spread sulfur dioxide across northern Ontario, and the book quoted a Greenpeace energy coordinator, David Martin, as saying that the “acid rain around the area was so bad it destroyed all the plants and the soil.”
But let’s listen to neither troglodytes nor treehuggers. Let’s listen to people who realize that going green always involves trade-offs, usually in cost, performance and efficiency, and that sometimes the price of such trade-offs could possibly outweigh the green benefits. There are also times when the trade-off is worth it, when a refusal to sacrifice a little in cost or efficiency for a marked green benefit is simply reactionary, hidebound obstructionism.
Let’s not be in HEVs for style, either. We don’t want what’s fashionable today only to find out tomorrow that we’ve been inadvertently harder on the environment.
So if it could be shown that HEVs are, in fact, no better than gasoline cars for the environment, that needs to be taken into account by those anxious to avoid blind zeal and by those following current fashions in their eco-quest.
“Shifting from gasoline to electric vehicles is like switching a smoking habit from cloves to menthols,” Zehner says, adding, “It isn’t acceptable for doctors to promote menthol cigarettes — should environmentally minded people promote alternative fuel cars?”
HEV advocates have conceded that the electricity needed to power the cars does not simply appear from nowhere. Of course, it must be generated from coal, nuclear, natural gas or other non-renewable energy sources. They will then provide some sort of analysis showing that on balance they still require less non-renewable energy than gasoline cars do.
But Zehner says this is only part of the story. His study finds that “the higher cost of electric cars reflects the greater quantities of fossil fuels used to build them” and “electric cars do not eliminate the negative side effects of vehicular travel.” According to the book’s publisher, “they merely shift the problems elsewhere.”
Zehner contends that manufacturing an HEV constitutes a larger impact than what’s used to power the vehicle, concluding that the added copper, aluminum, rare earth metals and other materials necessary for electric car production offset any benefit achieved during the entire charging life cycle. Why? Such materials need to be mined. Mining operations are notoriously non-green.
He then cites a bigger problem: “Alternative-fuel vehicles stand to define and spread patterns of ‘sustainable living’ that cannot be easily sustained without cars. Suburban infrastructure maintenance and road construction induce ecological consequences beyond the side effects of the vehicle itself.”
In other words, if you have an HEV, you’re still going to drive around a lot, and your lifestyle will require more roads, more construction and a whole lot of other non-green activities.
Zehner isn’t alone. In February 2001, CNW Marketing Research calculated the “total energy needed in the auto industry on a worldwide basis” — what it called “the real energy cost, from dust to dust, of producing vehicles for consumer use.”
In its report, titled “Dust to Dust: The Energy Cost of New Vehicles From Concept to Disposal,” the research organization considered over 4,000 factors involved in producing cars and other vehicles. Needless to say, the work took years, and CNW decided not to let automakers, suppliers or any other outside organization know the research was underway and not to accept any outside assistance in the funding of the project:
The goal was to avoid, regardless of the end result, being labeled a supporter of those who produce hybrid vehicles or the auto industry or the oil industry or the [liquefied petroleum gas] industry or any other group, organization or partisan cause.
Its conclusions, released in 2005, factored in everything from plant to dealer fuel costs, employee driving distances, electricity usage per pound of material used in each vehicle to literally hundreds of other variables in order to reach an energy cost per mile driven.
What it found was that “driving a hybrid vehicle costs more in terms of overall energy consumed than comparable non-hybrid vehicles.”
It rated the Honda Accord Hybrid at an energy cost per mile of $3.29. The standard gasoline-powered Accord scored $2.18. “Put simply,” the report concluded, “over the dust-to-dust lifetime of the Accord Hybrid, it will require about 50 percent more energy than the non-hybrid version.” Presaging Zehner, the report found that the manufacture, replacement and disposal of such items as batteries, electric motors (in addition to the conventional engine), lighter weight materials and complexity of the power package were to blame.
Even sport-utility vehicles were found to be much more environmentally friendly than supposed. According to CNW, the industry average of all vehicles sold in the United States in 2005 was $2.28 cents per mile, [but] the Hummer H3 was only $1.95 cents per mile. That figure was also lower than all currently offered hybrids and the Honda Civic at $2.42 per mile.”
Catch that? Driving a Hummer is roughly twice as environmentally friendly as driving an Accord Hybrid.
Art Spinella, president of CNW, noted that basing car purchase decisions “solely on fuel economy or vehicle size does not get to the heart of the energy usage issue.” As the report put it, “a 2005 hybrid uses less gasoline and produces fewer tailpipe emissions but costs society significantly more in overall energy costs than conventional internal combustion engine vehicles.”
If you want to look good in the eyes of less-informed green advocates, get a Honda Accord Hybrid. If you want to really care for Mother Nature, drive a Hummer. And be sure to put an “Earth First” bumper sticker on it.