If automobile manufacturers and celebrity endorsers are to be believed, then the hybrid car is the best thing that humanity has done for the environment since we stopped using our freshwater sources to dump our sewage. With its clean energy, reduced dependence on fossil fuels, fewer emissions, and little leafy-road logo on the the back bumper, it seems pretty obvious that hybrid automobiles are single-handedly going to replant rainforests and stop global warming in its tracks. However, a closer inspection reveals that these trendy little buggies may not be the green answer that the world’s drivers are looking for.
The Story Behind Hybrid Batteries
See, hybrid cars are able to rely on less gasoline than conventional automobiles all thanks to their batteries. The battery stores electricity (as you might expect) and uses that energy to supplement fuel power and keep the hybrid rolling merrily along. The battery is the heart of all hybrid vehicles.
Unfortunately, batteries are about as good for our planet as deep-fat-fried cocaine is for our bodies. See, even though hybrid makers are eager to play up the whole nature-aspect of their designs, batteries don’t actually grow on trees. Batteries use complex chemical reactions to charge, store, release, and then recharge, and these reactions rely on some fairly non renewable resources. Precious metals such as lithium and cobalt aren’t super easy to find yet are essential to battery manufacturing. The technique used to acquire these metals-strip mining-is the environmental equivalent to kicking down someone’s front door and ransacking the place. Entire mountain tops have been lopped off and pulverized in search of valuable resources, and in the wake of a strip mining venture, the surrounding landscape is often left a barren, toxic wasteland (think Mordor, except with less personality). The batteries that these metals go into don’t last forever either; they need to be replaced after about every 100,000 miles. And when they’re used up, they often end up in landfills where they leak poisonous chemicals into the ground (and possibly the groundwater as well).
Manufacturing Hybrids Uses Pollution-Heavy Methods
As for the actual cars, well, you might picture their manufacturing plants as being giant green fields where fairies and unicorns whistle merry tunes as they install engines and tighten wheel nuts, but the reality is a little less progressive. In fact, for all of their bravado, hybrid manufacturers build their cars using the same pollution-heavy methods as any other car makers. Plus, the batteries themselves need to be manufactured, which produces even more harmful emissions. In fact, when you look at all the numbers, the production of a single hybrid car results in more than twice as much carbon dioxide being released into our atmosphere as the production of a gas powered car.
Hybrid Cars Still Use Non-Renewable Energy
But wait! At least the energy that goes into the hybrid is clean, right? Well, possibly. It all depends on where you charge it, actually. See, electricity is produced in a number of ways. Some areas get their electricity through clean energy sources such as hydroelectric or geothermal plants. However, 44% of the electricity in the United States comes from good-old-fashioned coal-burning power plants. And in case that doesn’t immediately make you want to vomit in terror, remember that coal power plants are the single largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the world and are believed to be the primary cause of global warming. It would actually be better for the environment if your hybrid just ran off of whale oil because at least that burns relatively clean and doesn’t have to be strip-mined out of the ground. But what about all of that research that seems to indicate that hybrid cars are making a difference? Well, as Ozzie Zehner points out in his book Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism, the truth is that much of that research is actually funded by players within the automotive industry, so the potential for bias is certainly there.
So, yes, the hybrid automobile is one path that people can take when they want to do their part to save the environment; it just happens to be the wrong one. If you really want to help the environment, one of the best things you can do is use less electricity. But don’t put your faith in hybrid cars because in the end, they tend to do more harm than good.