Why Your Hybrid or EV Isn’t Saving the Planet

Image credit: Tesla Motor Company

We humans are a simple lot. For any complex problem we want a simple solution, simple enough for our tiny primate brains to grasp.

Marketing folk know this and have been exploiting the fact for a long time.

They can get us to purchase things that make no sense, and then develop quasi-religious fanaticism about our choices. Once you can get a human being to believe something they become impervious to facts and reason and will defend their choice and belief to the death.

It’s a beautiful world, if you’re in the marketing game.

Let’s take a look at that former icon of pseudo-greenery, the Toyota Prius. This was foisted on a gullible public as being (i) a great way to obtain better mile-per-gallon numbers, and (ii) more environmentally friendly than the demon Oil-Based-Vehicle.

This plugs into our desire for simple answers. Unfortunately simple answers rarely if ever result in desirable outcomes. The Prius is a classic example.

Some basic physics: for any given mass, a certain minimum energy will be required to overcome its inertia and accelerate it to some speed for some period of time. Vehicles can be engineered to have less resistance and drag, they can run on thinner tires to reduce hysteresis, and weight can be minimized. The Prius takes a good shot at the first two but fails miserably on the third. Why? Because it has (i) a petrol engine, and then (ii) an electric engine plus batteries to power it.

This increases the mass of the vehicle, thus increasing the energy required to move it. And where does that energy come from? The Prius’ petrol engine. Which is why a Prius gets worse mile-per-gallon numbers than a conventional compact European hatchback.

Moreover, the Prius uses lithium-ion battery technology, which is atrocious for the environment. Mining lithium creates enormous pollution, turning lithium into battery products uses lots of energy (as does transporting it halfway around the world), and then worst of all it can’t be recycled at the end of its five-year life. Most lithium goes into landfill, and it’s highly toxic.

All in all, not really a great help to the environment.

Which is why in 2007 the Institute of Automotive Engineers released the study they conducted comparing a General Motors H2 Hummer (really just a variant of the traditional Chevrolet Tahoe SUV) versus a Prius. Turns out that the monster SUV has a lower total lifecycle carbon footprint than the supposedly eco-friendly Prius.

Of course, if you ignore the environmental cost of making the batteries and the fact that you need to replace them every five years and the fact they are toxic but can’t presently be recycled then sure, you can make a case for the Prius. And that’s what environmental groups did. But I’m not sure that really helps the planet either.

Fast-forward to everyone’s favorite status-symbol, the Tesla. As an all-electric vehicle it’s less stupid than a hybrid because it doesn’t include the weight of a conventional petrol engine. But… factor in lots more pollution from making those batteries, lots more pollution when they become landfill, and unless the energy used to charge an EV is 100% from renewable sources (which it is not, anywhere on the planet) then those coal-fired power stations and those oil-fired power stations are emitting plenty of CO2, partly to compensate for transmission losses that are inevitable in any large-scale distribution system.

The fact is if you want to accomplish a lower carbon footprint, properly maintaining an old diesel Land Rover and keeping it for 20 years will be more efficacious than buying a hyped EV or hybrid. Which shows you what a bad solution today’s EV really is.

But thinking about all these various factors is not a simple answer. It’s not sexy. It’s not advertised in glossy magazines, on websites, or on TV. Environmental groups hate oil-driven vehicles and are convinced that if we only switch to electric cars decades ahead of the necessary infrastructure to manufacture and recycle and generate clean power then, somehow, magically, we’ll be doing some good.

Reality, alas, can’t be tricked by ardent belief nor by wishful thinking.

Sure, if in 30 years we’re generating a significant percentage of electricity by means of renewables and if we develop ways to recycle toxic elements like lithium, then at that point the EV will make sense.

But meanwhile if we really want to make a difference, we should ensure office buildings turn off their lights when everyone’s gone home. Today the USA burns over one million barrels of oil per day lighting buildings that are empty because everyone’s gone home for the evening. How hard can it be to turn off the lights?

Today the USA burns over three million barrels of oil per day because people are forced to commute to the office instead of being allowed to work from home (and it’s been estimated that thanks to the Internet at least 70% of white collar jobs could be done from home now).

If we really want to make a difference, we should insist that companies let people work from home whenever possible instead of forcing them to burn several million barrels of oil per day on stressful and pointless commuting.

These two changes alone would save more money, reduce CO2 emissions more significantly, and reduce individual people’s expenses, by many times what could be achieved by stuffing everyone into an EV tomorrow.

Unfortunately there’s no corporate sponsor paying to market these ideas. There’s no stock price to boost on the back of misguided consumer purchases. And so there’s no awareness, no sexy feel-good sizzle, no nothing.

Instead we get marketing hype.

And that won’t actually save the planet at all.

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