vincent kessler/reuters

vincent kessler/reuters

In my next few blog posts, I’m addressing some of my readers’ most burning green questions.

Jess asks:

“I’ve read conflicting reports on the true environmental impact of hybrid cars. Some of my greenest friends insist that the impact of buying a new Prius (resources used to build and ship parts, fabrication, battery disposal, etc.) is actually greater than simply keeping an older car that gets decent gas mileage.

Their premise is that the greeny guilt over our American desire to drive a newer car is mitigated by driving a Prius, but that the truer path to being green would be simply not to buy a new car every 4-5 years.”

So are all the shiny new hybrids and electric cars really greener than the gas-powered deal in your garage?

The answer is…it depends.

On the surface, electrics and hybrids do seem greener since they use significantly less or virtually no fossil fuels to run. Less gas consumed plus fewer pollutant emissions equals better for the planet, no?

Well, no. It’s more complicated than that.

Here are just a few of the variables affecting the eco-friendliness of your vehicle:

  • Where your electricity comes from – What percentage comes from clean, renewable sources?
  • The manufacturing practices of the car company – Do they have a cradle-to-grave product policy? Do they have responsible materials recycling/reuse and battery disposal?
  • The energy used to make the vehicle – How much energy is used in the manufacturing process? Where was that energy sourced? How efficient is the factory?
  • What kind of driving you do – off-road, in-town, highway, pedal-to-the-metal or joy ride?
  • The efficiency of your current vehicle – Is your daily commute in a tricked-out Winnebago, or a modest sedan with decent gas mileage?

There are two primary reasons for going electric/hybrid:

  1. If you live in a state with a grid that gets most of its energy from clean, renewable sources like wind and solar, getting an electric/hybrid might be a good option. (See this analysis of where the majority of each state’s energy comes from.)
  2. Buying electric/hybrid is a consumer vote for greener alternatives. The more people demand greener products, the bigger the drive towards innovation, mass awareness, and better choices in the future.

If you’d like in-depth details, here are two of the better articles I could drum up on the subject:

Earthtechling’s Are Hybrids or Electric Cars Better for the Environment?

The Chicago Tribune’s Are Electric Vehicles the Most Environmental Option?

In the meantime, here’s my final verdict:

  •  Do your homework  Check out this state-by-state analysis  of which cars are better, factoring manufacturing practices and energy use, and energy sources. It will help you determine whether a hybrid or electric is better for you.
  • Buy used  Getting a used hybrid/electric can help offset the environmental impact of the manufacture of a new vehicle.
  • Hang back  If you don’t really need a new car, wait a bit. Greener energy sources and vehicle options are evolving constantly. Unless it’s that Winnebago, you’re probably better off driving your current vehicle into the ground.

And now we circle back nicely to the second part of Jess’s question.

“The truer path to being green would be simply not to buy a new car every 4-5 years.”

…which in turn begs some philosophical questions, if you care to go there.

  • Why do we think we need so much stuff anyway?
  • Is it all just a thinly-veiled distraction from our existential angst?
  • A convenient way to rationalize the short-lived serotonin boost of shopping therapy?
  • What’s more important: the economy or the environment?
  • What are the ultimate costs of participation in the Cult of Consumerism?

Whoa. My head is kinda spinning.

And I just can’t do this stuff justice in my 400-700 word blog post.

But I bet Jess could. His blog is full of deep thoughts and brilliant prose about life, modern fatherhood, and the pursuit of contentedness.

Check it out: The Final Nine


What are you driving?