Anyone who thinks at all knows that the new plug-in hybrid and electric cars are not zero-emission vehicles. (Solar cars are, however.) The July 2010 issue of Scientific American has a nice short article on this called The Dirty Truth about Plug-In Hybrids. (Note: link does not include entire article.) What the article shows is that just how green a vehicle is depends upon where it is. For example, in California where 99% of our electricity comes from natural gas, plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles emit far less carbon and save huge amounts of gasoline compared to ordinary hybrids. On the other hand, in Illinois, where roughly three-quarters of the electricity comes from coal, these vehicles produce way more carbon, even though they still save about as much gasoline as they do in California. On the third hand, in New York, where two-thirds of their electricity comes from oil, these vehicles produce a bit more carbon, but save only a little gasoline: about 10%.
This is all very interesting, but it doesn’t provide the reader with a lot of context. (And to be honest, I think I just provided you with all you need to know from the article in a much more understandable way. But we must remember that only the best writers get to work at Frankly Curious!) The electricity that these cars require has to come from somewhere and that somewhere is a power plant near by. This power plant is necessarily going to (1) be more efficient at turning raw materials into energy and (2) less polluting—especially in areas where we care about pollution, like downtown Los Angeles. Even in those few places where plug-in hybrid and electric cars produce more carbon than regular hybrids, they only produce slightly more and they produce quite a lot less than old-fashioned gasoline engines. What’s more, if every car in the US was a plug-in hybrid or electric car, the net result would be a huge reduction in carbon emissions (not to mention emissions that affect local air quality).
We are not going to cure our global warming problem on the backs of cars, anyway. As a result, the bigger issue to me is gasoline. Regardless of where you live in the US, these vehicles greatly reduce oil consumption. Most of our electricity comes from natural gas and coal. We produce 84% of our own natural gas and 100% of our own coal (that link’s a PDF). What all these new car technologies mean is that we are less dependent on oil and that is a good thing, because we don’t have a lot of oil. So this makes us more self-sufficient. And that’s a good thing.
Getting off coal (which creates 52% of our electricity) is going to be harder. But we can do that too.