Published December 6, 2010, Los Angeles Daily Journal – In just one month’s time, the long-anticipated overhaul to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations will take effect, marking the first increase in the U.S. fuel economy standard since the start of Ronald Regan’s second term.  The CAFE regulations, enacted in response to the 1973 Oil Crisis, establish the minimum standards auto manufacturers must meet across all vehicle lines, or pay substantial penalties.  The standard has remained at 27.5 miles per gallon for the last 25 years; yet all of this is set to change in January, when the standard begins its march from 30.2 miles per gallon in 2011 to 35 in 2020.  This, it was held, would move the United States toward greater energy independence, increase the production of clean renewable fuels, and reduce our impact on the environment.

Car makers have responded to the legislation by making more fuel-efficient internal combustion engines and, more publicly, by racing to the market with hybrid and electric vehicles.  GM states it is proud to be “a leader on a path to energy independence;” Nissan claims that its focus is “innovation for the planet.”  Public support has never been stronger for eco-friendly products, and manufacturers are happy to supply fleets of new vehicles that cater to the emotion of doing something good for the environment.  Yet, amidst the rush to produce, and consume, the next best thing that will save the planet, what is the truth behind the environmental sensitivity of hybrid and electric vehicles?  You might not like the answer you are about to hear.

To assess a vehicle’s impact on the environment, it is necessary to consider the entire life cycle of the vehicle, from inception to destruction.  While fuel consumption is the most obvious factor, it is but one factor among many to be considered.  Also included in the analysis are design and engineering, raw material sourcing, manufacturing, transportation, distribution and marketing, recycling and disposal.  Hybrid and electric vehicles certainly excel in fossil fuel consumption, but the analysis is not so one dimensional.

As famous as hybrid and electric vehicles have become for their fuel savings, they are beginning to develop an infamy for the pollutants they create in the manufacturing process.  With nearly 400 pounds of battery packs on board the average electric vehicle, the complexity of the manufacturing process has skyrocketed, which requires more energy and creates more emissions.  As a recent study undertaken by Toyota found, the Prius was the worst in its class for emissions created during the manufacturing process.  Another study found that it takes 113 million BTUs of energy to manufacture a Prius, which is the functional equivalent of about 1,000 gallons of gasoline consumed before the vehicle ever hits the showroom floor.

And, then there is the matter of the raw materials.  Hybrids and electrics are powered by one of two battery technologies: nickel-metal hydride and lithium ion.  The rare earth elements used to produce these batteries (lanthanide and lithium) are strip-mined from solid rock, refined into their core elements, transported from their country of origin to the place where they will be manufactured into usable battery packs (usually China or Japan), and then transported again to the auto manufacturer assembly plant, where they finally make their way into the environmentally-friendly vehicle.

But, what is perhaps most surprising about the hybrid and electric vehicle is the impact consumer use has on the environment, as this is the area where the hybrids and electrics are seemingly impenetrable.  While hybrids and electrics certainly have a far less direct use of fossil fuel than their internal combustion counterparts, they also have an indirect use that is quite staggering.

Every hybrid and electric vehicle draws its energy by plugging into the electric grid, and this drawdown of energy itself results in pollution to the environment.  But, just how much?  The answer to that question depends largely on where you live, and more specifically, how much electricity your country generates from dirty sources such as coal and oil.  In Germany, 49 percent of all energy is derived from fossil fuels; in the United States, it is 55 percent.  So, how much pollution is emitted by plugging an electric vehicle into an electric grid that derives 55 percent of its energy from dirty sources?

“Pollution” is actually broken down into five separate chemical compounds: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide.  In a report published by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the impact of an electric vehicle plugged into the electric grid was compared with the tailpipe emissions of an internal combustion vehicle, with startling results.  Carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons were virtually nonexistent with the electric vehicle; carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide were at the same level in both vehicles; and the electric vehicle emitted 12 times more sulfur oxide than the internal combustion vehicle.  Sulfur oxide is a precursor to acid rain and atmospheric particulates, and is associated with increased respiratory symptoms and disease, difficulty in breathing, and premature death.

At least one study has attempted to quantify the impact hybrid and electric vehicles have had on the environment, as compared to internal combustion vehicles.  In a study entitled “Dust to Dust” by CNW Marketing Research Inc., 312 production vehicles were ranked on an “energy cost per mile” basis.  The report found that in many cases hybrid vehicles had higher energy costs than conventional cars.  For instance, the Honda Accord hybrid had an energy cost of $3.29 per mile, while the conventional Honda Accord was $2.18, meaning that the Accord hybrid will consume about 50 percent more energy than the non-hybrid version.

While car makers should be applauded for the efforts to find a solution that will eliminate dependence on foreign oil and reduce harmful effects to the environment, all that glitters is not gold in the hybrid and electric vehicle market – at least not yet.  Perhaps as technology improves and further alternative fuel sources are explored, we will get much closer to the answer we are looking for.  But, in the mean time, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that we are helping the environment by plugging in that new electric car.