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Hybrid Evolution

Posted by | October 11, 2008

Americans drive a lot. You’ve got little choice about the matter if there isn’t public transport in your area or you work odd shifts. But with modern gas and diesel prices, what’s a person to do?

Enter the hybrid. They get about 30% more miles per gallon than a standard car, decreasing both your gas bill and carbon dioxide footprint. Woo-hoo!

A hybrid car has two motors: one gas, one electric. The hybrid system pairs them to save energy. A simple example of the savings is that the gas motor of a hybrid like the Toyota Prius automatically shuts off when the car is sitting at a stop-light. The gas motor starts up automatically when you need it, without the arrrrr-arrrrr-arrrrr of my 1987 pickup as it starts on a cold morning.

The hybrids that have been on the market for a few years get their energy from gasoline, with electricity simply being an energy storage system.  But soon hybrids will come with factory-installed systems that allow you to plug them into your home electric supply, charging the battery. That’s a real change, because it means part of the energy for your commute could come via electricity from a variety of sources, like hydro-dams, nuclear plants, or wind-farms. That kind of diversity grants us flexibility in the energy we need for transportation, something most analysts see as a good thing for the nation. And using more electricity for our commutes makes us less dependent on foreign petroleum because almost none of the power in the grid comes from burning oil.

Engineering professor Robert Olsen of Washington State University reminded me recently that using more electricity for transportation could be “Green” even if some electric power comes from burning our dirty old friend King Coal. The California Air Resources Board calculates there would be substantially less carbon dioxide produced if all cars in the state were electric even if coal-fired power plants helped produce the electricity for them.  That’s true partly because it’s tough to keep millions of car motors well-tuned (think of my 1987 pickup) but easier to keep a few power plants running optimally.

A plug-in hybrid would likely cut your transportation cost substantially, because electricity is much cheaper than gasoline per mile driven. And fuel taxes aren’t applied to electricity (at least not yet). So the plug-in hybrid can save you bucks twice over.

There might be one thing you don’t appreciate about the hybrid from an environmental point of view. The battery in one weighs about a couple hundred pounds – or more depending on the size of the vehicle.  Most hybrid batteries are made of nickel that comes from mines in Sudbury, Ontario. Sudbury mining has led to an environmental nightmare that extends for miles from the mines in all directions. Even we geologists think of Sudbury as a hellish place – and we like mines!

That’s just one example of the general point Professor Olsen has to remind me about from time to time. Even some amazingly wonderful pieces of engineering – like plug-in hybrids or solar-electric panels or reversible heat-pumps – all rely on industrial processes ranging from mining and refining to manufacturing. Those steps simply aren’t environmentally neutral. Just like there’s no such thing as a free lunch in economics, there’s not a way for us to reorder the natural world without some messy and destructive steps.

If you don’t want a couple hundred pound nickel battery on your conscience, yet you’ve got to drive to work, what are your choices?

There are a couple of tiny and efficient little cars around. One is the Smart Car. It gets 33 mpg in town and 41 mpg on the road (that’s according to the 2008 EPA ratings, a system that’s pretty realistic about mileage – a great improvement over the old sets of numbers that routinely over-estimated the mileage you’d really get).

The diminutive Smart Car only seats two. On the upside, it’s surely easy to park.

Some folks think 41 mpg is pretty good for commuting with a traditional gas engine. But the Smart Car is 100 percent dependent on gasoline. If you want energy flexibility, either for yourself or for our nation, the plug-in hybrid looks good. And in about a year, I’m hoping to start seeing them on the roads around us.

Meanwhile, good luck at the gas pumps.