Investing in alternative fuel vehicles is not a no-brainer. The decision to buy a green car remains largely an ecological and political one, although there are some tangible advantages.
The current popular and simplified reason to buy a car that emits less pollution is to prevent global climate change. However, efforts to clean up automotive emissions started as an attempt to address public health concerns by reducing smog. Gasoline-burning internal combustion engines release hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide contribute to smog, while carbon monoxide is a poison in its own right. Most current automotive emissions controls are aimed at curbing these pollutants
Nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide, specifically, contribute to global climate change. Currently, there are no laws limiting carbon dioxide emissions from cars, although California is attempting to implement regulations. For every gallon of gasoline burned, 19.6 pounds of carbon dioxide enter the atmosphere. Absent vehicle pollution controls, consumer choices are Americans’ only tool for decreasing these automobile-generated carbon dioxide emissions.
For some, green cars offer a tangible benefit: lower or no costs at the pump. Because there is a direct relationship between fuel economy and carbon dioxide emissions, a car that produces less carbon dioxide will cost less to fill up. Hybrid cars used to cost a big more than their gasoline equivalents, but that discrepancy has changed. The Toyota Prius, which gets 50 mpg, starts at $22,000. Lincoln offers its MKZ model with gasoline or hybrid powertrains for the same price. Depending on electricity rates, electric cars can cost substantially less to charge per mile than a gasoline car, and at the same time have zero tailpipe emissions.
In this guide, we cover the current car options for people who want to reduce greenhouse gas and smog emissions, along with some experimental technologies.
Of the various green car choices, electric cars are the greenest. They produce no tailpipe emissions, neither smog producing gases nor greenhouse gases, and qualify as Zero Emissions Vehicles. However, unless the electricity used to charge up the car’s batteries comes from a clean source, such as water, wind, or solar, a power plant somewhere created emissions associated with running the car.
Monitoring and controlling the emissions from one power plant is easier and more effective than keeping track of the emissions from thousands of gas-powered cars on the road. Electric powertrains also use energy more efficiently than gasoline engines, so the overall power equation is in favor of electric vehicles.
The major drawback of current electric cars is that they don’t offer the range of gas-powered cars, and an infrastructure of rapid recharging stations has yet to be built out. Current production and research electric cars can travel anywhere from 40 to 250 miles on a single charge. Proponents argue that the average commute is less than 20 miles each way, making electric cars work well as everyday vehicles.
At this date, there are not many options for electric vehicles. The Nissan Leaf and Tesla Roadster, able to drive at freeway speeds and travel more than double the average commute, qualify as the two most practical electric production vehicles. Within the next two years, Ford will sell an electric Focus, Mitsubishi the electric i-Miev, Tesla the Model S, Toyota the Rav4 EV, and Honda the Fit EV.
Electric cars are only appropriate for people who have a place to charge them when at home. Unlike gasoline cars, where most people wait until the tank is near empty before refilling it, you can treat an electric car like a cell phone, plugging it in wherever you find available electricity. The best time to recharge an electric car is late at night when electricity demand is low. These times also correspond to lower electricity rates, making charging cost less than during the day.