According to our carbon footprint audit, and an evaluation of our three current vehicles, our cars contribute significantly to our carbon emissions. Though we don't drive very long distances, none of them get over 18 MPG.
Throughout our debates on the subject, my husband continues to espouse undying devotion to his 18 year old Jeep Cherokee, so we are going to keep that car. The Ford Mustang and newer Jeep Liberty will be sold to fund the purchase of a new "greener" car.
Now the question is: which car do we get?
We went to the Seattle Auto Show a few weeks ago to begin scoping out vehicles. The number of cars proclaiming themselves as "green" was astounding. So much so, that as I stood in front of a display that contained both a Toyota Highlander Hybrid and a small electric car from the Green Car Company, I heard a man behind me say loudly to his wife: "This green stuff is absolute bullshit."
I cringed a bit, but I couldn't blame him. Though there were a dazzling number of vehicles and technologies claiming to be "green", the message in totality made absolutely no sense. Diesel, biodiesel, ethanol, hydrogen, hybrids, natural gas, and electrics all posed as eco-friendly alternatives to gasoline. There was one car there that simultaneously worked on half of those technologies. For me, it created more questions than answers.
For example, is something green just because its fuel comes from something grown? Is an SUV green because it has improved mileage over its non-green sibling, even if it doesn't meet the minimum mileage standards for a car? How should we feel about "green" technologies that aren't even on production lines yet?
Overall, the baffling array of messages led me to do some research of my own to help make sense of it all. Let me split the cars into two buckets: cars of today and cars of tomorrow.
Green Cars of Today
1. Ethanol (e85) Powered Vehicles
What is it? Ethanol is an alcohol product made from biomass. Think of the rubbing alcohol in your medicine cabinet and you have the general idea. Ethanol is usually mixed with gasoline, and is totally different than biodiesel (see below).
Pros: Ethanol can be used by 6 million cars already on the road in the US, called "flex-fuel" vehicles. Using ethanol gets you off of foreign-imported oil, and onto using a more renewable source of fuel. Actual costs are about the same as gasoline. Can leverage similar distribution infrastructure as gasoline.
Cons: Despite what you may hear, it is not clean burning! Emissions per gallon are less than gas, yes, but ethanol is a less efficient fuel, and you need to burn more to go the same distance as gasoline. Estimates of the carbon emissions from the entire lifecycle of ethanol range from a little better to about the same as gasoline.
Also, there are concerns regarding whether powering cars from ethanol will result in more worldwide deforestation, since additional crops will be needed.
Brave New Leaf says: Running out and buying a flex-fuel car just to use ethanol isn't getting you much in cost or in carbon. Use it if your current car can handle it. Given that there is only one public e85 filling station in all of Washington, this is not an option for me.
2. Diesel / Biodiesel Powered Vehicles
What is it? You remember diesel fuel. Trucks use it still
today. It makes engines noisy, and it produces lots of smog, but it
gets better mileage, and thus makes less greenhouse gases than gasoline. Biodiesel is like normal
diesel, but made from plants.
Just like with ethanol and gasoline, biodiesel can be mixed with normal diesel to use in diesel engines. As opposed to the rubbing alcohol
consistency of ethanol, think of biodiesel as vegetable oil: thick and
Pros: Any diesel engine can use biodiesel without modification. Diesel gets better gas mileage than gasoline, and produces less carbon emissions. When mixed with biodiesel, emissions go down even further. Biodiesel makes your exhaust smell like french fries, which is fun and delicious.
Cons: Diesel engines are noisier. Not all gas stations have diesel fuel. Availability of vehicles in the US with diesel engines is limited largely to huge trucks and SUVs. Though cleaner diesel engines are coming, still creates a lot of smog. Biodiesel fuel is hard to find. Diesel engines are banned in 5 states (including California and New York).
Brave New Leaf says: If you went to buy a diesel vehicle today, you'd have the choice of a big truck or a 50k Mercedes. So much for getting access to that better mileage. But because diesels are super popular in Europe, the smaller diesel vehicles are coming in the next 1-2 years. The jury is out on how much better their mileage will be than their gas siblings, or how noisy their engines will be, but we'll start to find out in the next few months.
Today's bottom line: if you need a big truck, diesel is the available greener option. If you need a small car, you're likely better off with a hybrid.
3. Natural Gas Powered Vehicles
What is it? The same gas that powers your cooktop and hot water heater can now be used to run your car. There is one major production car in the US that uses natural gas: the Honda Civic GX NGV. It is also a hybrid.
Pros: Natural gas produces less emissions than gasoline. So combine NG with hybrid technology, and you get an extremely clean burning car. To fill your car up, many Americans could use the existing gas lines in their homes (a Phill).
Cons: Natural gas is still a finite fossil fuel. Natural gas filling stations are rare, and Phills cost $4000 retail. The car itself is also more expensive.
Brave New Leaf says: The Honda Civic GX NGV is theoretically the greenest car on the market. You pay for that green though: the car and the private filling station are expensive. Still, with a $4k federal tax credit and further local incentives for Phills, this
might be an interesting option for an adventurous homeowner. Living in a high-rise condo building, this option is not for me.
4. Hybrid Vehicle
What is it? You should know by now. It's your current, gas, natural gas, or diesel-powered car with some batteries to capture the kinetic energy your car produces to be used to further power the car. Sometimes your car runs from battery (usually 0-30mph), sometimes from the combustion engine. Hybrids give you higher gas mileage.
Pros: Get better mileage and lower emissions (mostly for city driving). There are lots of hybrid options on the market now, many of which have federal tax credits to offset the additional expense. Many states also have cool local incentives too (like you can skip your emissions checks, driving in HOV lanes, or free parking).
Cons: You pay more for your vehicle. The vehicle still uses gasoline. Potential loss in acceleration power. If you're a highway driver, might not be worth it. Repair costs and battery replacement costs could be significant. Reeks of smugness.
Careful of myths: There was a 'study' done about a year ago citing that a Hummer is more environmentally friendly than a Prius, thanks to manufacturing costs. This study was a load of crap, and built on all kinds of incorrect data, including the assumption that a Hummer's roadlife is 300k miles, and a Prius only gets 100k. It's critical to question the full carbon lifecycle of our vehicles, but in this case: it's bad data, and it's simply untrue.
Brave New Leaf says: At the end of the day, the hybrid story is all about gas mileage. Yes, carbon used in manufacturing is also important, but the manufacturing footprint is only 10-15% of the car's full lifecycle footprint. The rest is fuel.
When it comes to fuel, there are cars like the Toyota Yaris that get good mileage without the hybrid engine. And there are hybrid SUVs, like the Lexus Rx Hybrid, that get mediocre mileage with the hybrid engine. Consider the class of vehicle that you really need and the type of driving that you do, and max out the mileage you can get in that class: hybrid or not.
To sum up, here is a list of the greenest vehicles commercially available today.
Green Cars of the Future
5. Electric Cars / Plug-In Hybrids
What is it? Wouldn't it be cool if your hybrid could get a
charge from out of your garage wall that could let it drive without any
gas for 100 miles a charge? And wouldn't it be cooler if when you ran
out of electrical energy, your normal gas/ethanol/biodiesel engine
could kick in? This is where the electric car is going.
Pros: We have an existing distribution infrastructure in our
electrical grid. When running on electrical, the car itself creates
zero emissions. Even factoring in grid emissions, the carbon footprint of an electric car is smaller. Next logical step for owners of hybrids.
Cons: If power is drawn from the grid, it's still taken from greenhouse gas producing sources (coal, natural gas, etc.). Some complain of loss of acceleration, though car manufacturers are getting better at producing 'zippy' electric cars. Range of electric car may be smaller than today, but if they are hybrids, this may not be a problem. Production models cost more than $100k.
Brave New Leaf says: This is a sensible next step in the
evolution of hybrids. Particularly in Western Washington, where much of
our electrical energy comes from hydroelectric power, this is a very
sensible way to further green your car. As renewable energy becomes a
larger and larger percentage of the nation's electrical grid, this
could aid our country in producing less emissions.
Today you can't buy a plug-in model, but some conversion kits are available if you have mad cash. Keep your eyes open and wait it out.
6. Hydrogen Fuel Cells
What is it? Mix hydrogen, the most plentiful element in the universe, with oxygen, an abundant element of our atmosphere and make car go!
Pros: Car itself can be considered zero emissions; smashing hydrogen and oxygen together only produces clean, drinkable water!
Cons: Unless you're ready to take a trip to the sun, hydrogen isn't just lying around. Today, making hydrogen takes lots of fossil fuels, either burned directly or taken from the electrical grid (which also burns fossil fuels).
Also, there is no current distribution infrastructure for this fuel. And you can't buy a fuel cell car yet (maybe around 2010). Manufacturing the fuel cell requires expensive and difficult to mine materials. Despite the enthusiasm surrounding their potential, hydrogen cars can still be considered an unsolved problem.
Brave New Leaf says: Don't even worry about these right now. Maybe they'll figure it out, maybe they won't, but it won't be a realistic alternative for a while.
Other ways of getting around:
With all of the focus on automobiles, it's important to remember there are completely different alternatives for getting around: