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Hybrid Cars: How Much Do They Help The Environment?

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Posted August 25, 2018

Eco-friendly press and consumers alike are often somewhat deceiving not only themselves but also the public when making the case that electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles are zero emission alternatives to fossil fuel powered autos. A little of this deception is likely intentional, especially by the biased press, but most of it is simply due to naiveté, a willingness to believe we’re making a difference, or a readiness to oversimplify a complex problem.

Image credit: Joenomias via Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

While they have some ecological benefits over autos powered by internal combustion engines, these benefits are not nearly as straightforward as those often promulgated by the environmentally friendly proponents of electric vehicles, whether they be electric car owners or environmentalists who espouse we should all be driving electric vehicles everywhere all the time.

When the benefits of electric vehicles are measured in a real world, more realistic manner, it quickly becomes apparent that the touted zero emissions claim is at best a misnomer. It is an advertising fabrication bundled and sold to the general public to make them feel better about driving (or desiring) their electric vehicles, who in turn put pressure on governmental bodies to push for more and more electric vehicle use.

Under present conditions, the overall carbon footprint of a battery-powered car may be similar to that of a conventional car with a combustion engine, regardless of its size.

Energy from Power Plants

How can this be the case? Firstly, most of the electricity used to recharge electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles is generated from power plants using fossil fuels. In effect, what the electric vehicle is doing (and less efficiently due to friction in the generation and transmission of the power) is shifting the location of the fuel burn from the vehicle to the electrical generation grid. Out of sight, out of mind.

Let’s not be all doom and gloom. We can argue that this alone is a positive outcome because we remove the internal combustion exhaust from urban centers to more remote areas where electrical power can be generated away from population centers. We can certainly say that electric and plug-in hybrid cars benefit the local environment with less pollution and noise, even if the effect to the global environment is less cut and dry.

In addition, electrical power generation is not solely reliant on fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas to produce its output. Newer sources of energy for electrical power generation come in the form of wind and solar power, as well as age-old hydroelectric generators that have been in use for multiple generations. With a more centralized means of controlling how energy is created, we should be able to make great strides in reducing our environmental impact from our use of electricity.

The Battery Debate

There are other factors that have not been discussed nearly as widely, or openly, with respect to electric and hybrid cars. One major oversight is the eventual disposal of the batteries used in electric and hybrid vehicles. These batteries contain many hazardous compounds and in significant quantities per battery pack. Disposing of thousands, or potentially millions of these battery packs will undoubtedly result in known and unforeseen environmental impacts that are rarely being discussed, as yet, by the proponents of these vehicles.

In addition to the hazardous waste by-products of the battery disposal problem, it has scarcely been reported that due to the complexity of the various components required to produce practical electric vehicles, more energy is required to produce these vehicles than standard gas-powered internal combustion engine powered vehicles. Battery packs are complex and require limited resource heavy metals.

One interim solution so far has been the adoption of hybrid vehicles that are powered by a combination of internal combustion and electrical power, such as the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid or the upcoming Dodge Ram 1500. These vehicles have been adopted more readily compared to all-electric vehicles, more because of their increased range than anything else. Most hybrid vehicles have systems installed which incorporate such things as using the friction from braking to generate electrical power which is then funneled back into the battery’s power storage to be used for future energy requirements.

This brings us to another topic regarding electric vehicles. Like the car graveyards populated by gas-guzzling cars who have been ‘retired’, there is still the disposal of the vehicles themselves to worry about, along with the tires and other components that make up what we know as a ‘car’. Electric vehicles will change none of this – indeed making it worse due to the battery disposal time bomb. A more radical solution may require us changing how we look at transportation altogether, foregoing our cars for electric buses or a new transportation grid yet unrevealed.

A Complex Issue

We live in a time where it’s convenient to boil difficult issues down into sound bites and black-and-white positions, but the reality is much more complex. No-one really knows the ultimate impact hybrid and electric vehicles will have on the environment; certainly we all hope for more advanced for an industry in its infancy, but it’s not as simple as choosing a hybrid vehicle and thinking you’ve saved the planet. Seismic changes must occur in how we generate and consume energy before we can be sure that hybrid and electric vehicles are doing more good than harm.

Written by Mark Daniels

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