Your Car's Carbon Footprint: Hybrid vs. Gasoline vs. Electric Cars

by ‐ Tags: green living, alternative energy

In the green world, the debate over which type of car has the lowest environmental impact is one of the most confusing.

With the release of 2012-model cars, now an even broader selection of new “green” automobile technology is available to the American public. There are standard ICEs, 100% electric powered cars - i.e. the Nissan LEAF - and an even more diverse selection of hybrids than just the Toyota Prius.


Nissan LEAF

But, are the automobile companies really giving us a choice? Or are we being misled by fancy statistics and "zero-emission tailpipes?"

In terms of environmental and financial sustainability, is buying an electric vehicle worth it?

Is the Nissan LEAF worth it? Will it save money? Will it help to save the environment?

We are not so sure if the answer is yes. From purely a financial standpoint, electric cars tend to be much more expensive up front than the standard gasoline automobile. People often assume that no gasoline expenses translate into huge savings over the long run. But are you really going to keep your electric car more than five years? 

The technology behind the electric car is nearly identical to that of say, Apple’s MacBook. They both use a Lithium-Ion Battery. All of us computer geeks know that lithium-ion batteries deteriorate over time as they lose their initial charge capacity and efficiency. In five years, your Macbook Pro will be a Macbook Slow. This principle directly applies to plug-in electric vehicles, and if you inform yourself, Nissan's LEAF battery deteriorates 20% in the first 5 years, and 30% in 10 years. And how much does an electric car battery cost? Around $10,000 - $14,000.

(If you’re interested in seeing a graphical financial comparison between any car on the market, the US Department of Energy has created an easy online tool here).

On top of that, the life cycle assessment of electric cars is only sustainable if the energy used to make and fuel the car comes from renewable energy sources. This is not usually the case, since the sources of electric power that the grid pulls from are dominated by coal and natural gas.  

In most states, the electric grid is powered by mostly coal and natural gas. Does this reverse the “clean” effects of electric and hybrid cars?

Turns out, it depends on which state you live in. Different US states have different types of electricity generation sources. The graph below shows the breakdown of the sources fueling the electric grid in each state. This was found in Climate Central’s report (view the full report here)

Electricity By State resized 600

Climate Central wrote an extensive report in which they performed numerous analyses comparing the new Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf to the average gasoline powered vehicle in every state. In only 5 states (NH, VT, ID, WA, OR) did using the completely electric car—the Nissan LEAF—actually reduce one’s carbon footprint (See below graph). This is due to the mostly ‘clean’ electric grid in those 5 states. In the majority of states, a hybrid vehicle that uses gasoline and electric power, releases fewer GHG emissions than the LEAF. In Massachusetts, a gasoline-powered car needs to achieve around 46 miles per gallon to be more efficient than a LEAF. According to EPA rankings, the Toyota Prius is the most efficient car to own in MA, NOT a 100% electric car.

usmapstateenergy resized 600

Even if electric cars were a successful sustainable transportation solution, how would they add up in terms of performance?

The reason why people can not quite give up the conventional gasoline-powered vehicle (CV) is for convenience. If the CV's gas meter is running low, it only takes a few minutes to find a gas station and about 5 minutes to fill up the tank. If your car has a 20 gallon tank, it can probably go about 600 miles on that same tank. 

A purely electric car, on the other hand, is not quite so convenient. Yes, you can charge your LEAF from your home, but it will take 7 hours to reach a full battery. How far does Nissan claim you can drive on a full charge? 100 miles. Realistically, that figure is probably closer to 70 miles. Even if electric charging infrastructure existed extensively throughout the US, would people have the patience to wait several hours just to have a 50% charged battery?

At WegoWise, we support green initiatives, but the LEAF is essentially non-beneficial without a greener electric grid across the US. If all (or most) of our electric power came from renewable sources of energy, electric cars would be ideal!

If the grid doesn't get greener, the car industry needs to step up its game in order to impress environmentalists. Where are solar powered cars? Both the Prius and LEAF have solar panels that can provide the energy needed for AC and music, and this is a small step in the right direction. With the current infrastructure, positive change towards a sustainable transportation system can not be maximized.

Current concepts to watch out for in the future:

1. Change in Fuel - To replace gasoline, biofuels (such as algae, biomass, and ethanol) are being developed but these technologies are still in beginning phases.

2. More advanced electric charging technology - in the 'near' future, automobile companies are hoping to achieve around 500 miles to a full charge in all-electric vehicles.

3. Fuel Cells that run off of chocolate- According to Lynne Macaskie, Professor of Applied Microbiology at the University of Birmingham, “Fuel cells need clean energy to run them. If you provide bacteria with a supply of sugary waste from, for example, chocolate production, the bacteria can produce hydrogen. At the moment manufacturers pay to dispose of waste but with our technique they could convert it to clean electricity instead.” (read article here)

4. BIG and AUDI's "Urban Future" - using Solar Roadways and LED lights. The ideas behind the concept are strong--why not replace the existing road infrastructure with solar panels (Solar Roadways)? Most of the roads in the US are unused at a given point in time, so harnessing solar power from them would be ideal. Also, especially in cities, buildings are generally integrated with the road structure, which would provide for extremely efficient energy transmission from the roads to buildings. 

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