Are Eco-Friendly Cars A Good Choice?
Saving the planet is a tough job. I think everyone agrees that it won’t be the efforts of a few deranged eco-freaks that stems climate change, pollution, or social and political unrest – it will be the efforts of the masses. Since we live in a world consumed with capitalism, one way that we the people voice our concerns is in the purchase decisions that we make. So if you’re a tree-hugger (like me) and want to make a planet-friendly automotive choice, which alternative fuel do you choose?
Well first, let’s talk about what’s out there. I like to break them up:
- “Traditional” Fuels: These are your pretty standard crude oil petroleum products, and they’re pretty much available everywhere: Gasoline, Diesel
- “Alternative” Fuels: You can get fuel from a lot of places – some that you may not expect: Biodiesel, Ethanol, Natural Gas, Methane
- “Future” Fuels: These may sound like science-fiction, but don’t discount them as fantasy just yet: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, Solar
But wait? What’s missing from this picture? Hybrids! Let’s call them electro-variants because it sounds cool, but more so because there are various levels of hybrid:
- Standard Hybrid: On the market now, nothing special. The primary powertrain (e.g. Gasoline Engine) shares space with an electric motor that supplements it.
- Plug-In Electric/Hybrid: Like your Standard Hybrid, but able to run on pure electricity for a portion of its range (plugs in to the wall when unused to recharge).
- Full Electric: All the Hybrid technology (battery, motor, electronics), no shared powertrain. You depend on plugging it in for a charge.
Here’s my take on eco-friendly cars: You have to look at the big picture. Be wary of fashion trends… *ahem*–Prius–*ahem* that have all the right intentions, but may not really a great long-term solution. You can find a more detailed look at each of the fuel types in the Alternative Fuel Vehicles section as I post them; for you bottom-line people, here’s my summary:
- Gasoline: It’s everywhere. Every auto manufacturer makes them. It’s cheap. You can drive long-distances on it and they’re powerful and fun. It pollutes and isn’t atmosphere-friendly. No one wants a refinery in their backyard. My suggestion: use sparingly and be mindful of its impact. Don’t idle your car for an hour or drive it somewhere you could have walked. Try taking mass transit some time – you might like not having to deal with road rage. I would encourage automakers to install self shut-off devices on US models that let the engine stop while at red lights (and restart the instant your foot touches the gas pedal) - relatively simple to install and saves a lot of gas when you add it all up. They’re already doing it for the rest of the world.
- Diesel: It’s most places – not too hard to find. Almost every auto manufacturer makes them (Diesel is by far more widely used worldwide in comparison to the United States) but US models haven’t caught on quite yet. It’s a little more expensive at the pump – but cheaper to make; The problem isn’t the supply lines or the refining infrastructure – it’s low demand by US buyers. You can drive longer distances (better consumption) and it’s still powerful and fun – and doesn’t change the experience of driving. It pollutes, but advances in technology are combating both particulate emissions and CO2 emissions amazingly. Still has ugly refineries, but the refining process takes less energy (which means less global footprint). My suggestion: Diesel is the first stepping stone to carbon-neutrality. As diesel engines infiltrate passenger cars, drivers won’t have to change their automotive lifestyles as radically as they think they may have to. Sticker prices of new diesel passenger cars are higher than gasoline ones, but not tens of thousands of dollars.
- Biodiesel: Same as diesel, really – the difference is the source of the fuel. The complication is when biodiesel is made directly from food stocks like corn – agricultural space on the planet is shrinking while the population is growing. The phenomenal upshot of biodiesel is that it can come from recycled vegetable oil – which is abundant in almost every restaurant’s kitchen – and it can come from other sources, like Algae. My suggestion: keep biodiesel on your radar – as experimental refining techniques get better, biodiesel is just as good as crude oil diesel – which is, for my money, the most viable solution at the moment.
- Ethanol: Ethanol is more of a gasoline “filler” than anything – a supplement to slow down crude oil consumption. However, it presents massive challenges of its own – namely production, as most Ethanol comes from corn and other foodstocks. True you can grow it at home, right here in the U-S-of-A, but the acreage needed to do this effectively is substantial. Vehicles using Ethanol blends must be equipped to do so, meaning you have to buy it Ethanol-ready from the dealership; retrofits aren’t terribly popular yet. As part of a total solution I think Ethanol is a player, but not anywhere near a silver bullet.
- Natural Gas: Coming in two main formats (CNG and LPG), Natural Gas is a wonderful solution for large vehicle fleets and a pretty decent solution for the average commuter. It’s not really readily available at the gas station yet but Natural Gas is popping up here and there. The biggest problem with Natural Gas is near-zero consumer perception: if you had a blank check and you had to go buy a CNG- or LPG-powered car right now, where would you go? Until we start seeing TV commercials by manufacturers advertising Natural Gas, people won’t really be asking many questions about it. As far as environmental impact is concerned there are some advantages to the Natural Gas model - but just like electricity, large-scale distribution has its drawbacks.
- Methane: Still considered to be an “emerging fuel”, Methane (or Methanol) isn’t quite road-ready yet for the same reasons that Ethanol isn’t. The thing that keeps me from dismissing it entirely is this: The agricultural industry is more responsible for global warming and climate change than all transportation combined – and Methane holds primary responsibility. Where does the Methane in agriculture come from? The two main sources are organic decomposition (composting), and the flatulence of farm animals. Yes, cow farts are a major part of the climate change problem. Stop to ponder that for a minute. Ok – let’s move on. Here’s my thinking – can that Methane be captured and be put back to work?
- Hydrogen: If you’ve ever heard of the Hindenburg, you know that Hydrogen gas burns. You can use it to power an engine and the emissions are pretty much zero. But, that Hydrogen gas has to come from somewhere, and it’s not like the Nitrogen, Oxygen, or Carbon Dioxide floating around in the atmosphere. The best way to get Hydrogen gas in large quantities (and you need a lot more of it per mile than you would gasoline) is through the process of electrolysis – you basically “cook” pure water with electricity and you get Hydrogen and Oxygen to separate as gases. The big question is: where are you getting all of the electricity to do this? If your Hydrogen refinery is hooked up to a coal-fired or nuclear power plant, what’s the net result? Sure, you’re not polluting on the road, but you’re still polluting.
- Fuel Cells: Fuel Cells are complex stacks of precious metals and wizardry that produce electricity from combining Hydrogen and Oxygen chemically, without combustion. The by-product of the process is pure water and electricity. The electricity they create powers a motor, kind of like the way a battery delivers electricity in a hybrid. The first (obvious) problem is the cost – fuel cells can cost $40,000 and up, and that’s without the rest of the car. The second hurdle is: where do you get your Hydrogen? Not at the local gas station – yet… maybe someday. Thirdly, the range of a Hydrogen-powered car isn’t impressive – but this may change as technology improves. The thing I like about Fuel Cells is that they could replace batteries in hybrids (as long as you had one gas tank for gasoline or diesel and another tank for hydrogen on board). That may be overly complicated in both theory and execution though.
- Solar: I think we’ve all see those crazy solar-powered cars – they look like a big 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood covered in solar panels with wheels on the bottom that look like they may have come off of a red Radio Flyer wagon. They have about enough space inside to fit a driver and a marble – as long as its not a “shooter” marble. Not very practical, I agree, but the thing that’s cool about solar is that you don’t have to hook up to the national power grid to get your electricity (to power your on-board motor). As long as the sun is shining, you’ve got juice. What if you had a Plug-In Electric Hybrid that charged itself while it was parked out in the sun? That’s cool. I’ve seen testing on “Solar Paint” – yes, imagine if your car was painted with the same mojo that makes solar panels work? It may only come in one color, but who cares? “My car charges itself whenever it’s in the sun” is a statement that’s likely to turn heads in line at the bank.
- Standard Hybrids: They’re all the rage these days, right? Pretty much everyone associates the word “Hybrid” with the word “Green”. But are they? Let’s just say that I wouldn’t want to live downstream (or downwind) of a battery factory. The batteries in hybrids – whether they’re Lead, Nickel-Metal Hydride, or Lithium-Ion – are pretty bad for the environment and have a very limited shelf-life; the problem is that you’re trading one form of pollution for another. Battery recycling technologies just aren’t there yet – recycling them is a very chemical process that is just as bad if not worse than manufacturing them. Still think the Prius is “green”? Let me ask you this – if I made you a fruit smoothie and threw a couple of AA batteries into the blender, would you drink it? That may be what ends up happening when the hybrid batteries we dispose of start seeping into the water table.
- Plug-In Electric/Hybrids: The idea of not burning any gasoline is appealing – but doing it with a battery/motor in a fully electric car is challenging because of the limited range. What if you could drive forty miles without a drop of fuel and then four hundred more miles on gasoline (or diesel) if you needed to? That’s cool – especially since most commuters are inside of 20 miles from their workplace. But, the electricity – like in the Hydrogen model - has to come from somewhere and unless you’ve got an array of solar panels on your roof at home and at the office your electricity is probably dirty. If solar paint technology gets there that would be pretty slick – since you could charge anywhere you see the sunlight. As far as I know there are currently no (or very few) plug-in hybrids offered for sale right now – the ones on the road are conversions of standard hybrids where owner saddles the entire cost (which is in the many thousands of dollars).
- Full Electric Vehicles: Full Electric Vehicles are surprisingly fun to drive. I remember when the Saturn EV1 came out in 1996(-ish?) I was at a GM travelling road show (GM set up big ride & drives so that consumers could come and drive all of their vehicles in the parking lots of large venues – this one was at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles); the EV1 dominated the cone-course and the idea of fully electric cars had the whole crowd buzzing. People we’re floored with the concept (even though there are environmental implications that aren’t as apparent at the surface). Lots of controversy has surrounded the GM repossession of every EV1 on the road – especially at the protest of their owners. I’m sure there are justifiable reasons that full-electrics haven’t resurfaced in full-force (although the Nissan Leaf is a step in the right direction) but let me leaf (ha ha – just kidding) – let me leave you with these two thoughts:
- Vehicle Manufacturers make two things: vehicles, and spare parts for those vehicles. Full Electric cars have no need for engine oil, spark plugs, timing belts – and a whole host of other consumables. Making lots of electric cars means making less and less spare parts – which cuts to the bottom line pretty quick. Dealers and service stations aren’t too happy either – since full electrics would almost eliminate the term “oil change”.
- Big Oil is a revenue-generating monster. How happy do you think oil companies would be if we didn’t need gasoline or diesel for passenger vehicles anymore?
THE VERDICT: Have you ever heard the expression: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I think this totally applies when it comes to eco-friendly automobiles. I don’t think that we’ll wake up tomorrow to a zero-emission reality and, as you can see above, there’s more than one approach. When you think of the big picture, you have to think in generations of automotive technology – today’s cars are still primarily powered by fossils. I think the next generation needs to be powered by Diesel – including Diesel Hybrids (which have shown great promise, in the 70+MPG area). Maybe someday we’ll see Fuel-Cell supplemented Biodiesel Hybrids with Solar Paint that don’t touch the road (like the Bullet Train in Japan). Or, maybe we just scrap cars entirely and start working on the “beam me up, scotty” transporters from Star Trek.