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A Highly Charged Debate

February 01, 2011
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It seems as though countless industries and people from all walks of life are embracing sustainability — or at least what they believe to be sustainability.

One case in point is the automotive industry.

An increasing number of manufacturers are offering gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles that supplement petroleum power with that from various types of batteries.

On the surface, this marrying of technologies seems like an idyllic way to curb our collective carbon footprint.

But, many are so enthralled about reducing our dependence on foreign oil — well, any oil really — that they fail to see the entire picture.

Hybrid vehicles, like internal combustion engine automobiles, still require petroleum products for rubber tires, engine oil lubricants, shipping the vehicles across the nation, etc.

And, because of the increased time it takes to assemble them and their numerous, more complicated parts, hybrid vehicles carry with them a larger carbon footprint throughout the manufacturing process than do conventional vehicles.

Sure, hybrid vehicles contribute less smog-forming emissions into the environment; but, as with any technology, there is a trade-off.

Mine Your Business

The batteries in hybrid vehicles require various metals to be mined from the Earth.

It is understood that many materials used in our daily lives are torn from the ground and, regardless if that process leads to destruction, turned into consumer goods.

As researchers at the University of California at Berkley warn, the metals used in hybrid batteries are made of caustic materials and require additional mining and proper disposal.

While many dealerships offer battery recycling programs, not every owner of a hybrid vehicle participates when the projected five-year lifespan of the batteries is reached.

Additionally, replacing a battery pack in a hybrid vehicle can cost upwards of $5,000, which requires more mining, more water usage, more packaging, more shipping, etc.

An interesting tidbit that rarely receives attention is the fact that most of the elements required to produce hybrid battery packs are imported from China.

So, the question is this: Do we remain dependant on oil from the Middle East or do we shift our dependence to Chinese metals?

The Electric Ride

Another option seeing increasing publicity is the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

These models rely solely on battery power for a given distance — some manufacturers claim distances of 40 or more miles — before the gasoline engine is fired to propel the vehicle.

Some feel this is too good to be true: A zero emission vehicle that requires no gasoline for short trips.

They would be right. Nationwide, 57 percent of electricity is generated from burning coal in our country''s more than 100 coal plants.

Charging these plug-in hybrid electric vehicles requires that coal be burned and pollutants be dispersed into the air.

In some states, a significantly higher percentage of electricity is produced from burning coal.

In Ohio, for example, 86 percent of the electricity consumed in the Buckeye state comes from burning coal.

So, every time a hybrid vehicle is plugged into an outlet, coal is being burned to charge its batteries.

While this most certainly does reduce our dependence on oil, it is most certainly a trade-off.

It Is A Matter Of Opinion

Yes, hybrid vehicles are a viable option for personal and goods transportation in our increasingly environmentally conscious world.

But for every good attribute, there is a negative aspect that a consumer must weigh.

This was not intended to start a wave of hybrid-hating Americans or to discredit those who have made the change to motoring a hybrid vehicle; kudos to you all.

It is important, however, to look beyond the marketing hype and ask empirical questions about any new technology.

While it is likely that the intentions of the hybrid vehicle movement are well and good, one might be surprised to know the full story.

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