October 27, 2014

A Lifecycle Question: Hybrids vs. Electrics

A friend asked me a seemingly simple question:
"I assume there's a known answer to this - which has a smaller carbon
footprint, a hybrid or an electric car?"

(Photo: Flickr, Duncan Rawlinson)

Here's what I said, but I'm looking for other perspectives. Thoughts, dear readers?

"Any studies I've seen compare some form of electrics (All EV, plug-in hybrid, hybrid) to non-electrics -- not hybrid vs. electric.

The 'it depends' in all of this is because there's a footprint in production of electrics that isn't small, and then the big issue is what grid are you plugged into. If it's coal-heavy, the benefits of electrics are less (but NOT eliminated -- it's still more efficient to burn energy at a large plant for a million cars vs. a million internal combustion engines, and batteries convert energy to wheel power, or torque I think, much more efficiently than an engine that produces waste heat). Outside of the carbon question, people also worry about the toxic elements of batteries, but it's a separate issue.

All that said, I'd still feel pretty comfortable asserting that the all electric is better than the hybrid for all the same reasons that electric is better than combustion. As the grid gets cleaner -- and it is most definitely getting cleaner (e.g., 40%+ of new capacity this year has been renewable, and another 40%+ natural gas, which is cleaner than coal, so long as the natural gas production process isn't leaking too much methane) -- the benefits of electric cars keep rising."

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On October 28, 2014 8:46 AM, Phil Dahlin said:

The main advantage I see for electric vehicles is that electricity can continue to get cleaner and have less environmental impact whereas gasoline is pretty much always going to be a petroleum extract with lots of environmental impacts along the value chain. EVs are about potential and gasoline is all about 19th and 20th century technology.

On October 28, 2014 1:04 PM, Sanjay Kapoor said:

Have not been able to find the white paper that JB and Musk refer to in the first 5 minutes of this Q&A (http://youtu.be/OJUA_dVVMjo), but definitely worth investigating

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