Framing the Dialogue

Clear…Err Choice – Electric versus Hybrid

electric carThere was a local article recounting an interview with a researcher from Carnegie Mellon University who looked at electric cars versus hybrid cars. To put it simply the hybrids use some gas while the electric use none. The hybrids have smaller batteries while the electric have very big ones. Ordinarily I do not read these types of articles because I expect bias and there probably is bias as the basis of the study was between electric cars versus hybrid cars…no mention of combustion engine cars. I’ll confess to not having read the study, but I was intrigued by the fact that the study supposedly did something that is so rare; the actually looked cradle-to-grave to estimate the impact of these vehicles.

“Well, if you look at the full life-cycle of producing and using a vehicle throughout its life, you gotta account for manufacturing the vehicle, manufacturing the batteries, the emissions that come through the smoke stacks through the factories as well as up streams through the mines. We’re getting the original materials and transporting them to the factories, and then of course burning gasoline, refining gasoline, producing that electricity.”

Actually it looks like the study may have stopped at the edge of the grave based on the researcher’s comment above. I wonder if they included the cost of disposing of those toxic batteries. If they are considered hazardous waste then there is a steep cost for disposal and perpetual monitoring and maintenance of the disposal facility. While the incremental cost of one battery could be small the cost of siting, designing, permitting, building, operating, and maintaining such a landfill would be very expensive. Recycling the batteries would also be expensive.

Again, the CMU study did not consider gasoline powered vehicles which, in my mind, taints the results of the research as truly usable for citizens to make informed decisions on purchasing vehicles considering environmental impacts. I have a friend who owns and loves his Scion and claims he gets nearly 50 miles per gallon. Including these types of vehicles would have made the study stronger.

top gearYears ago I wrote about a test that the British television show Top Gear did using the Prius (It’s worth watching just to see how they pronounce Prius). They tested the Prius against a high end BMW and found that mileage was inexorably tied to the way one drives. Essentially slow and steady gets better mileage. I have conducted a very unscientific study over the last few years regarding Prius drivers. I selected the Prius as it is the most recognizable hybrid on the road. The early results are that Prius drivers are perhaps the worst driver as far as driving for mileage. It’s as if they think that since they drive a hybrid they can drive fast and furious. A caveat is that seasoned citizens driving a Prius still drive slowly.

If you really want to make this comparison more complete the research would have to include the effects of vehicle accidents.  There has to be an impact on the environment when these big batteries are compromised in a collision.  There would be clean up costs, hazmat response costs, etc. that would be beyond the normal emergency responders.  They would also have to take into account the condition of the passengers.  Have you ever seen one of these very small, light cars after a collision?  What it the impact of the treatment of the patients on the environment?  I’m not talking about blood on the road, but the amount of resources needed to respond, transport, and treat injured drivers.

So I know that you finished reading this post before cheating and clicking on the link to the full article and am waiting for the results…

“Small battery packs do a lot of good for not that much money. The larger batteries cost a lot more money, and the amount of benefit is marginal.”

Or in simple terms hybrids are better for the environment than the electric car. The researcher also discusses the political issue of how government subsidizes the industry;

“I think both the federal and state tax credits are pushing for the wrong vehicles. Lawmakers assume that the larger battery packs are better, that we’re getting more environmental benefits so we should subsidize them more. I don’t think that’s true from what we found in our study. Depending on where you get your electricity from, if you get your electricity from an average source in the United States, than the large battery packs can actually be worse.”

His false choice is whether to subsidize the electric or the hybrid. This false choice makes his job easier as he merely needs to choose between two options and ignoring what I think is a glaring omission. How about stopping the subsidies altogether and putting the money toward clean coal technology, or investments in natural gas vehicles, or natural gas electric generation, or nuclear energy development. I think we all suffer when a complex issue is clouded by research that doesn’t seem to address all of the options. We should give CMU some credit for going “up streams through the mines” in their study.

I have to wonder whether how much of our tax dollars were spent on this study and if that money might have been better spent.





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