I have terrible news for you, O Concerned Citizen of Mother Earth: there's no perfect energy source.
OK, there's one: you eat your homegrown vegetables, convert those calories into foot and/or pedal power, and boom. You're a near-zero-emission transportation engine whose fuel probably caused minimal environmental impact.
But when it comes to transportation, the big problem for most of us, though, is range. What's your top speed on a bike? On foot? How far can you rationally travel in one session without becoming an exhausted ball of sweat? And as for mass transit, well, Indy could do a lot better.
Yep, a lot of us could abandon our cars in favor of bikes or public transportation when it comes to commuting. Some might even be able to walk to work.
But for a broad cross-section of our culture, there are family obligations and time constraints. How many groceries can you jam in a backpack? Can you carry Junior's cello on your Trek? When confronted with the pressures of modern American livin', a lot of us have to have some kind of automotive transportation that can shield us from the Polar Vortex and haul the kids' sports equipment and musical instruments.
The question becomes, then: What's the greenest option for me and/or my family? What's the cheapest, safest way to haul me and my loved ones around without tromping all over the planet like some kind of greedy glutton?
What's the least of all evils?
The answer: Depends on who you ask.
THE CASE FOR ELECTRIC PLUG-INS
Lauren Fix, who turns up regularly on cable outlets like The Weather Channel with car-winterization tips and such, is a bit suspicious of the trend toward electrics. "What people fail to realize is that when you drive an electric, you still are going to cost somebody something somewhere. "
In fact, Fix is a proponent of — wait for it — diesel. "Diesel is a great solution," she says. "[Diesel engines are] no longer loud, no longer dirty, they no longer blow black smoke and they have more power. You get longer trips between fill-ups, better fuel economy. Better torque, which means better performance — you buy horsepower but you drive torque."
Fix's arguments against electrics — beyond their still limited range on a single charge — are ones you've probably heard before. It's true: plug-in electrics are only as clean as the energy they draw. But a large number of industry researchers and environmentalists have begun to make a case for all-electrics, and it's a pretty convincing one.
Paul Mitchell, who's the CEO of Energy Systems Network (a Central Indiana Corporate Partnership nonprofit — their other interests include groups such as Biocrossroads), says that comparative emissions are a wash. In other words, even in Indiana, even right now, the smokestack's just as clean as the tailpipe. The upside for electrics is that those smokestacks are giving way to cleaner generating stations, while the oil industry remains as dirty as ever.
"The grid itself is cleaning up," says Mitchell. "The flip side is that the places where we're sourcing oil from, the process that oil goes through to become gasoline or petrol, is not really changing — in fact, it's getting more and more dangerous. They're having to go further offshore to find the oil ... to more unfriendly locations and countries to source the oil and they're having to transport it further and further at the risk of catastrophic failures and accidents."
As hard to believe as this might have seemed just a few weeks ago, Indianapolis is proof positive that the grid's getting cleaner. On Aug. 15, IPL announced that the Harding St. plant would stop burning coal and switch to natural gas by 2016.
There's another issue: electrics are pricey, especially when the average consumer looks at the range on a single charge. Take the Chevy Spark as an example: plug it into a standard outlet overnight (120V) or speed up the charge to seven hours with a 240V charger — that has to be professionally installed in your home. Chevy offers discounts, though, to offset the cost of the charger, and quicker charging stations are starting to pop up, too — but the capability to accommodate those stations is optional.
On the cash-outlay upside, the Feds are putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to EV purchases: $7,500 in tax credits are available with the purchase of most models. (Source: fueleconomy.gov/feg/taxevb.shtml) Those tax breaks are important — the 2015 Nissan Leaf, for example, has an MSRP (manufacturer's suggested retail price) approaching $30 grand before the credits kick in. That's dropping in some cases, though — the aforementioned Spark falls below $20,000 with the full tax break; you can even lease one for around $199 monthly.
Although electric charging stations are hardly ubiquitous, Indianapolis has added to its bike-sharing program with a car-sharing program called BlueIndy, an all-electric fleet that's found success in France. The company behind the program, Bollorè, has tied an IPL rate hike to the service to help with startup costs. (Initially, it'll cost ratepayers about 28 cents a month. The deal's being considered by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.)
If you're a fan of bikes, electric motorcycles are popping up, too. BMW's offering has the vibe of a scooter, and Harley Davidson's rolled out "Project Livewire," a ride whose lines make the thing look like Darth Vader would be right at home in the saddle. Harley's added sound to the bike, too, so the bike's torque has a better soundtrack than a barely audible hum.
WHAT ABOUT NOW?
OK, fair enough. As a nation, we're trudging away from coal. But what about today? How can you justify an electric car purchase right now?
"When you look at the tailpipe, you're not taking into consideration the long CO2 footprint trail of oil and where it's sourced from and how it's transported halfway around the world. It's hard to do because you don't exactly know where it's going to come from; it's a commodity. Sometimes it's sourced from the US, sometimes the Middle East, maybe oil sands up in Canada, which are highly volatile in terms of CO2. When studies have been done that look at that in an honest and objective way, the conclusion is that ... emissions are equal or better. "
The Hoosier Environmental Council is on board with Mitchell. Jesse Kharbanda, HEC's Executive Director, sent this along via email:
"HEC tends to support EVs over other automobiles provided that consumers, particularly those that have strong buying power (e.g. cities, large companies) work with both EV manufacturers to employ rigorous green practices (e.g. sustainable lithium mining; recycling of batteries; safe disposal of batteries) and power companies to make accelerated investments in zero-carbon technologies (e.g. solar, wind)."
We'll get back to that battery issue in a bit. Kharbanda continues:
"As a June 2012 Union of Concerned Scientists report shows, 'Nearly half of Americans live in regions where driving an electric vehicle means lower global warming emissions than driving even the best hybrid gasoline vehicle available.' That statistic will get better and better — even for the grids that serve Indiana — due to emerging multi-billion dollar investments in wind power in the Great Plains, the increasing replacement of coal with natural gas, and continued compliance with renewable electricity standards across the region."
Mitchell handed me the very Union of Concerned Scientists report that HEC mentioned.
The physics of electrics make them more efficient as well. Here's a gross oversimplification of physics: Laying off the accelerator in an electric isn't just pushing less fuel through a running motor. An internal combustion engine is still burning fuel when you brake; electrics diminish that flow of energy in a better manner.
THE CASE FOR HYBRIDS
The last time Jodi Perras, who heads up the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign here, bought a car in 2013, she considered the current condition of Indiana's grid, not the future. Perras used a handy online guide to compare Indy's emissions with other parts of the country (found at content.sierraclub.org/evguide/). According to Perras, "I agree with Jesse that things are starting to change. Also, an EV would reduce some of the local pollution in Marion County, transferring some to rural areas of southern Indiana who are already breathing too much pollution from coal-burning power plants. At this point in time, I don't think an EV is a clean choice for Indiana residents when it comes to reducing CO2.
"In 10 years when I'm ready to look for a new car, I hope that will have changed. That's what we're working toward, at any rate. But looking at IPL's current 20-year energy planning process, they will have no additional wind or solar energy until 2029 at the earliest. Even with the increase in natural gas generation by IPL starting in 2017, I don't believe an EV will be a better alternative than a hybrid when it comes to CO2 emissions for many years to come."
The other benefits of hybrids? Range. Whether a hybrid's a plug-in or a regular ol' start-stop variety, those who get twitchy about the short mileage the consumer gets from a single charge find these rides comforting. Plus, most folks who use plug-ins can lean on the batteries alone for commutes on days that don't come with traffic jams. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, "Unlike conventional hybrids, PHEVs can substitute electricity from the grid for gasoline. The 2014 Ford Fusion Energi, for example, can go about 21 miles by only using electricity, and the 2014 Chevy Volt can go around 38 miles before the gasoline motor kicks in.
"Though this doesn't sound like a far ways, many people drive less than this distance each day. In a recent UCS survey, 54 percent of respondents reported driving less than 40 miles a day. Moreover, using electricity instead of gasoline is cheaper and cleaner for most people. The average cost to drive 100 miles on electricity is only $3.45 compared to $13.52 for driving 100 miles on gasoline." (Source: blog.ucsusa.org/comparing-electric-vehicles-hybrid-vs-bev-vs-phev-vs-fcev-411)
ABOUT THOSE BATTERIES
When a battery in a hybrid or plug-in vehicle goes south, it doesn't just quit like the lead-acid battery you're probably most familiar with. The battery in your ride becomes less and less efficient — range diminishes until the thing isn't really viable any longer. There are two big problems when that happens. For the consumer, a replacement's pricey. For the environment, the batteries are loaded with some pretty toxic stuff.
A plan for recycling those batteries is a requirement from the US Department of Energy. "The Obama administration realized early on that if they were going to push plug-ins, they'd have to address this environmental concern about recycling," says Mitchell. "When the stimulus was passed, and all this money flowed into battery vehicle technology, the White House put as a requirement [the development of] a comprehensive end-of-life recycling strategy for your products."
Mitchell says most companies are using two different options. "Second life" or "secondary use" places less-than-efficient batteries (which can store some energy, albeit a limited amount, for up to roughly 30 years) places the batteries into backup power systems for cell phone towers or other applications. These batteries can be stacked and sit on the grid for decades.
The other option's true recycling, and this is trickier: How do you remove the toxic junk from the battery and put it back into the manufacturing process? It ain't easy, and there are some hefty cost considerations, too. All batteries will still ultimately reach an end, as Lauren Fix points out: "What are you going to do with those batteries down the road? When we've used them up in every way, shape and form, we still have cadmium, nickel and mercury." Although companies in the U.S. might not be allowed to dump those dead batteries anywhere they please that's certainly not the case in the developing world.
Ultimately, it's about your personal priorities — and what you can afford. Maybe a high-mileage used vehicle, one that doesn't burn a bunch of fuel and didn't require any extra energy to build, maybe that's the solution for your particular needs. Maybe you've got the cash for a super-efficient and sexy electric. Maybe you're thinking about simply riding the bus more often. Remember: if you're making a concerted, educated effort to transport you, your kids and your stuff in a more sustainable manner, you've taken the first step on the path to helping the planet.
Jodi Perras sums it up: "When it comes to what's 'greenest,' you really have to choose your measuring stick. If it's reducing local ozone, an EV would be better. If it's reducing global carbon emissions, after walking, riding a bike or mass transit — a hybrid would be better than an EV or traditional gas vehicle in Indiana. If it's reducing waste disposal, you'd also look at what it takes to build the vehicle and seek the most sustainable option."
KNOW YOUR RIDE: THE GREENEST TYPES OF TRANSIT
YOUR FEET — Your little toesies and tootsies were evolved for carrying your weight around in that classic bipedal motion we call "walking." (Or "running" for those times we had to deliver a message to someone 26.2 miles away or outrun a wooly mammoth.) OK, we know that if work is eight miles away, walking's not usually an option. But if the store's across the street, why start your car? At least use your feet and not the minivan when you and the kids are trick-or-treating this Halloween — please?
A BIKE — You can buy 'em used for a hundred bucks, new for many thousands. A lot are designed purely for commuting, with fenders to stop the splashing and racks to hold your laptop. There are fixies and monster-tire fat bikes and mountain bikes and ten-speed Schwinns from 1971. Pedal power!
THE BUS — This is the mode of mass transit in Indy. Every bus in the fleet of 155 has a handy-dandy bike rack, and 13 of Indy's buses are diesel/electric hybrids. The hybrids get somewhat better mileage — 5.6 mpg versus 4.2 for a conventional engine — but the big win looks to be reduced emissions: 99.84% less than your regular mover. (Source: indygo.net)
EV — The plug-in electric is just what it sounds like: a car with a battery that gets recharged by sticking a cord in the thing. The upside: no more pain at the pump and WAY fewer moving parts that will wear out/fail/make smoke and obnoxious noises. The downside: Costs scan be steep, especially when one factors in the limited range of the vehicle, which can be a fraction of a high-MPG subcompact. Battery technology is still improving, but your engine is also your "fuel tank", and they both fail at the same time. Replacement — though improving — is still pricey, typically running from $2,000 to $3,000. The upside here: in addition to Federal tax credits, IPL offers special charging rates for these rides.
HYBRID — Prius! Larry David's favorite ride in the HBO sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm was a start-stop variety. The gasoline engine shuts down at idle and/or low speeds and switches over to battery power. Again, a lot of folks who embraced the hybrids and their amazing mileage numbers and range early on got the tremors after seeing new battery costs when their old ones started acting like last year's iPhone.
PHEV — These hybrids lean even more heavily on their electric motors, but reduce something that EV owners experience called "range anxiety." "Range anxiety" is something that one might experience while barely crawling along at 7:45 a.m. on a Thursday because I-69 has suddenly turned into an instant used-car lot. Simply put, you've got a gas engine for backup.
HIGH-MPG — Gas, diesel, whatever — there's definitely something to be said for owning a small, reliable car that's been safety-tested and gets good mileage. New high-mpg compacts and subcompacts are pretty inexpensive, used ones even more so. (In fact, one could make the case that re-use of an existing vehicle uses vastly less resources than buying new — no one's manufacturing the ride for its second owner.) Converting an engine to run on bio-fuels — like used frying oil — is an option, too. Biodiesel has yet to really catch on despite Willie Nelson's best efforts.
FCV — Fuel cell vehicles were the talk of the nation during the Bush administration, but they haven't really taken off. Hydrogen and oxygen get converted into electricity, and the only emission — according to the manufacturers, anyway — is water vapor. The drawback? It takes energy to get the H into your neighborhood hydrogen filling station — which doesn't exist yet and most likely never will.
NGV — Natural gas vehicles, like their gasoline brethren, rely on a fossil fuel that's limited — and the debate over fracking is fodder for another six issues of NUVO. Whether the gas is compressed or liquefied, those processes require tanks that deliver intense pressure or intense cold, respectively. Again, that's an infrastructure that simply ain't there in this part of the world. (NGVs are most popular in Asia and Latin America.)
MEASURING THE MILES
Every year, the U.S. Department of Energy releases its list of the most fuel-efficient cars. To try and create an apples-to-apples comparison, the Feds have come up with a formula for electric cars: "Since electricity is not measured in gallons, a conversion factor is used to translate the fuel economy into miles per gallon of gasoline equivalent (MPGe)." Here's a rundown of some of the big winners for 2014 (including electrics) and what to expect in 2015 and beyond:
Two-seater — Smart ForTwo electric drive: 107 mpg (According to Indy's Smart dealership, the price for the 2015 all-electric will be going up a bit to $26,990 msrp.)
Minicompact — The Fiat 500e: 116 mpg (The 2015 is listed at $31,800, and the mileage seems to have been upped. The bigger problem? Buying one involves traveling to California, Oregon, or "select Fiat studios." Oooh, we buy cars at "studios" now! Even bigger problem? Fiat claims they lose money on every sale of these rides.)
Subcompact — BMW i3 BEV: 124 mpg (These are pretty and pricey:
The electric Beemer starts north of $47K.)
Compact — Ford Focus E: 105 mpg (A slight powertrain upgrade for 2015 doesn't change the range — 76 miles — or the relative mpg.)
Midsize — Nissan Leaf: 114 mpg (The 2015 version will get you 126 city and 101 highway [interesting how that flips from a gas engine, eh?] for an MSRP of "$21,510 after federal tax savings." Clever.)
Large — Tesla Model S: 95 mpg (According to their website at press time, the Model S is available with either a 60 or an 85 kWh battery. The P85 — that's "P" for "performance" — has a range of 265 miles, pulls 0-60 in 4.2 seconds and can run at a top speed of 130 mph, all of which is awesome if you happen to have $93,400 to drop on a freakin' car.)
Small station wagon — Honda Fit EV: 118 mpg
(Salesperson Chris Harriman at Terry Lee Honda informs us that Honda has decided Indy doesn't have the infrastructure to support selling the thing here, so the West Coast is where you'll find 'em.)
Excluding electrics, here's what you get:
Two-seater — Honda CR-Z: 37 mpg (Harriman tells us that the base CR-Z with a manual transmission starts at $20,785 MSRP. What's more, Honda has a supercharger package for the CR-Z that'll be available in 2015.)
Minicompact — Scion iQ: 37 mpg (This chunky little fella lists at $16,435, and is loaded with airbags to help alleviate any safety concerns.)
Subcompact — Ford Fiesta SFE FWD: 36 mpg (There's a hybrid in the works from Ford for 2018, so sayeth Reuters.)
Compact — Toyota Prius C Hybrid: 50 mpg (The Prius, which, according to Car and Driver, is the best selling hybrid globally and the best-selling auto of ANY type in California, has gotten a a slight makeover for is fourth generation. The starting MSRP is just above $25K.)
Midsize — Toyota Prius Hybrid: 50 mpg
(Oh, and it's got THE best mileage for a hybrid, period.)
Large — Ford C-MAX Hybrid: 40 mpg (This one's mpg is consistent year to year, the 2015 msrp is just a bit above $24K.)
Small station wagon — BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon: 35 mpg (Again, we're deep into the upper $40K range here. Which means you can buy his and hers for about the price of the top-line Tesla!)
Midsize wagon — Toyota Prius v: 42 mpg (This entry also was the winner in this category when electrics were included in 2014.)
Of course, there's the other end of the spectrum: the 16-CYLINDER Bugatti Veyron, which has a top speed north of 260 mph (YES THAT'S FASTER THAN AN INDY CAR) and gets an Earth-pummeling 10 miles to the gallon.