the hybrids vs. the hummers... a draw?
As many of us (hopefully) know, global warming is a certainty and knows no political affiliation. Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (NO2) trap infrared radiation in the atmosphere, causing an overall raise in average global temperature and giving them the apropos name of “greenhouse” gases. Part of these gases come from natural occurrences (volcanoes, dead plants, animals), but a significant part of them come from human-produced sources (mines, factories/power plants, landfills, cars.) A century of busy mining, rapid industrialization, and exponential world population growth has taken quite a bit from our planet. CO2 levels in the atmosphere are at an extraordinary high, and, unfortunately, we humans don't breathe CO2 very well. The amount of additional carbon into the atmosphere should be the measure on how “eco-friendly” a vehicle is, and I'm not talking about what comes out of the exhaust pipe.
The amount of carbon that a process, lifestyle, or technology contributes to the atmosphere is commonly referred to as the “carbon footprint.” I can calculate my personal carbon footprint by analyzing how many miles I drive, products I buy, electricity I use, how many miles I flew on a airplane, how much trash I throw away; the list can go on for as many iterations I want. Then I think about what came before and after my actions, for example, the time the sanitation truck spends time idling in front of my house to empty my trash bin can be calculated into my carbon footprint. The shiny new Weber gas grill we purchased last summer came from the local Home Depot. The grill was shipped to the store from a warehouse, likely by truck, which came from a manufacturing facility, by truck or train, which parts came from overseas, by boat, which raw materials came from all over the globe, by boat, train, or truck. All this transportation adds CO2 to the atmosphere and compose the carbon footprint of the Weber grill; purchased a mere 1⁄2 mile from my house. Now reducing one's carbon footprint to zero is impossible, unless you stop breathing, but chipping away at your footprint by asking your utility company to switch you to renewable energy, buying local produce from a farmer's market or co-op, or planting trees can help. Taking a closer look at the hybrid vehicle you may be thinking about purchasing is wise.
The most successful hybrid vehicle, in terms of sales, is the Toyota Prius. Introduced in Japan in the late 1990s, the North American release in 03 was met with outstanding sales. Waiting lists were common, some reaching up to six months in length. Hollywood celebrities were seen driving the car; owning one became a status symbol. The Prius was marketed as the most eco-friendly around, in terms of gas mileage and emissions. Certainly, the Prius is a logical choice for the smog-ridden areas of Los Angeles County. Magazines and critics praised the car for being one of the most technologically advanced vehicles made, with numerous industry awards bestowed upon it. The basis of hybrid technology is the combination of an electric motor and a traditional combustion engine, commonly called a petroleum electric hybrid vehicle (PEHV). The Prius can run using one or both of the motors, using the combustion engine and regenerative braking to recharge the nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries used in the electric motor. As shipped from the factory, the NiMH packs cannot be recharged from a external source. Aftermarket products can be installed to convert a Prius PEHV into a plug-in version (PHEV), such as the PRIUS+, adding the convenience of charging the NiMH packs through an ordinary household 120V plug, and using the combustion engine as a back-up, if desired. One particularly interesting application with a PRIUS+ system is Vehicle-To-Grid, a process of using home photovoltaic panels to charge the vehicle, providing supplemental power to the home, and uploading and any excess to the power grid. This sounds like the ultimate in eco-friendliness, but this technology has a price that is not necessarily paid by your wallet.
Since a Prius is technologically more complex than a traditional vehicle, there are more parts, subsystems, and components that must be assembled for the whole thing to work, and these parts are not made in the same place. NiMH batteries are the latest and greatest in rechargeable technology. They last longer than older tech like Ni-Cad, and are generally more friendly environmental wise than older batteries containing cadmium and mercury, which are quite toxic for life. I am speaking in respective terms, because the process of recycling NiMH batteries is a complex and expensive endeavor due to the large amount of metals involved and the wide-range of sizes and compositions. According to an article in London's Daily Mail, the nickel used in factory-installed Prius batteries is mined in Ontario, Canada, shipped to the U.K for refining, then sent to China for further refining, then finally, off to Japan where the batteries are actually made. Eventually, the batteries head to Toyota manufacturing plants in Japan or the United States. That results in, potentially, a worldwide trip for the nickel. And, just like my Weber grill, all that shipping and trucking creates a large carbon footprint, just for the raw materials for one single part of a Toyota Prius.
In the same article, the nickel mine in Sudbury, Ontario is under scrutiny for showing poor concern for the surrounding environment. It is important to note that the text and headline is a bit misleading and baiting, as Toyota doesn't own the mine in question, and the author infers hypocrisy between people who have purchased a Prius out of environmental concern, and the damage to the surrounding landscapes during the raw mining of materials for said vehicle. Mining and refining is a messy business across the board, adding tons of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. I'm concerned with the process involved in acquisition of the materials, but I am also quite concerned with the expended energy in the transportation of the materials, which tends not to attract much attention.
CNW Research in Bandon, Oregon has built an impressive 500-page report of the energy costs of building, owning, operating, and disposing of a vehicle through its entire life. Appropriately titled “Dust to Dust”, this report chronicles costs of specific vehicles to see the actual economic and environmental impact in dollars per mile of the life of the vehicle. The results are enlightening, to say the least. A Toyota Prius in 2005 had a $3.25 per mile energy cost, while the Hummer H3, a vehicle that is frequently targeted as the “poster boy” of American self-indulgence, had an energy cost in 2005 of $1.95 a mile, about 60% the energy cost of the Prius. Now granted, the Prius has better fuel economy than the H3 (about 45mpg for the Prius, 16mpg for the H3 - for the first four years of ownership, according to CNW), so for a commuter or a family on a tight budget, a Prius makes a lot more sense economically. Why does a Prius have a higher energy cost? The batteries, the electric power plant, the combustion motor, and the electronics all are more specialized, originate from different parts of the world, and has consumables that are difficult to recycle.
The point of this is not to infer that a hybrid vehicles are bad for our environment and an H3 really is, but to encourage people to examine and think what goes into making and disposing a vehicle of this type, and to make an informed decision about purchasing a hybrid vehicle. Like I stated, a vehicle that has the fuel economy and emissions of the current hybrids is a good thing, but let us not fool ourselves into believing marketing hype that hybrid vehicles are the absolute environmentally friendly choice.