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My darn Prius: Green car buying tips from a reluctant driver

David Beach  |  04/01/15 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Transportation choices, Driving

People often ask me what’s the greenest car to buy. Well, I just went through the car-buying process myself, so here are some tips from my experience.

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Reluctantly, I just traded in my 2002 Honda Civic HX. I say reluctantly because the car had been extremely reliable, still ran well, and got nearly 35 mpg in mixed city/highway driving with a regular gas engine (which left me wondering why, after all those years, today’s small cars don’t get any better gas mileage—but that’s another story). However, after 13 years—and 13 Cleveland winters—I anticipated that some major maintenance expenses were looming. So it was time to trade it in.

And that made me think about my options.

Buy a car?

I hate the fact that I need to own a car. It’s costly, consumes a lot of my attention, deprives me of needed exercise, and accounts for about a quarter of my personal carbon emissions.

I would rather live in a place where I did not need a car on a regular basis—a place where most of my destinations were close together and accessible by transit, biking, and walking. I am halfway toward that goal because I live in Shaker Square neighborhood of Cleveland, one of the most transit-friendly places in Northeast Ohio. But, like most people, I have things to do all over the region. And our sprawling region is designed to be accessed only by car.

So, although my first recommendation is to move into a transit-friendly neighborhood that allows you to drive less, I recognize that, even then, it’s really hard to be totally car-free. (To fix this, the best recommendation is to advocate for higher density development and a more balanced transportation system in Northeast Ohio, along with more car-sharing services.)

The most fuel-efficient car?

Once I decided that I could not do without a car, I thought about what kind of car to get. My criteria included reliability, safety, and low overall cost of ownership. But, because I am particularly concerned about the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, my top priority was fuel efficiency.

The general tip here is to buy the most fuel-efficient car you can afford that meets your daily needs. This acknowledges that at different stages of life, we may have different needs. The important thing, though, is the “daily” part. On my personal guilt-trip scale, I think it’s okay to have a larger vehicle if you regularly take groups of kids to soccer games or have a business that requires you to haul lots of things. But I have little patience for people who buy a big pickup truck or SUV just because they might pick up a load of mulch once a year.

The question, then, what is the most fuel-efficient car? I started my search by looking at U.S. EPA’s list of the most fuel-efficient cars for 2015. This is a simple ranking of gas mileage . At the top are electric and plug-in vehicles, such as the Chevy Spark and Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid (based on miles per gallon of gasoline equivalent in electricity (MPGe). The best gasoline-powered cars are regular hybrids, the Toyota Prius and Prius C, which get 50 mpg combined city/highway driving.

The greenest car?

But the EPA ranking does not consider other ways that cars create carbon emissions or other environmental impacts. For a more complete analysis of impacts during the life-cycle of vehicles (including manufacturing, operation, and disposal), I looked at the GreenerCars website of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

GreenerCars describes its 2015 methodology as follows: “We analyze automakers' test results for fuel economy and emissions as reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board, along with other specifications reported by automakers. We estimate pollution from vehicle manufacturing, from the production and distribution of fuel and from vehicle tailpipes. We count air pollution, such as fine particles, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and other pollutants according to the health problems caused by each pollutant. We then factor in greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide) and combine the emissions estimates into a Green Score that runs on a scale from 0 to 100. The top vehicle this year scores a 61, the average is 37 and the worst gas-guzzlers score around 17.”

According to this ranking, the greenest cars are small electric vehicles. Among regular hybrids, the Prius C is close behind with a score of 57. The regular Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid score 54.

Are electric vehicles greener?

For a number of reasons -- including cost and limited driving range -- I did not consider an electric vehicle (EV). I was also interested in a study by the Climate Central research group which found that the benefits of EVs depend a lot on the source of the electricity used to charge them. In “dirty energy states” like Ohio, which generate most power from coal, driving and recharging an electric car is worse for the climate than burning gasoline in a conventional hybrid or high-mileage car. (Note: This study has generated a lot of debate, and I am curious if GCBL readers have other opinions.) Another critique of electric cars is here.

In Ohio, EVs can be preferable today if you are able to buy green power from the grid (as many Cleveland residents are able to do thanks to the city’s aggregation program) or you have your own solar panels, both of which will permit charging with renewable energy. For example, one of my friends recently got a Ford C-Max plug-in hybrid, and he charges it from solar panels on his garage roof. Other people will have to wait for the Ohio electric grid to include more renewables before EVs will be the best choice.

New or used?

One last question is whether it’s greener to buy a new or used car. From a carbon emissions point of view, this is a question about whether the energy savings from greater fuel efficiency will exceed the energy it takes to make the car (i.e., the energy in the materials and production process).

There are complex, life-cycle analysis studies that look at this. They vary widely but many conclude that around 20% of the life-cycle carbon emissions of a standard gasoline vehicle are in the embodied energy of production. Thus most of the emissions come from operating the vehicle over its lifespan. Over time, then, a more efficient vehicle can make up the embodied energy and have less total emissions than an existing car. (Hybrids and EVs start with a larger embodied energy penalty, as their battery systems require more energy to produce.)

It’s also true that the act of buying a new car and trading in your old one may mean that there is one more car on the road for a while. But, overall, it’s a good thing for the vehicle fleet to transition to more efficient vehicles. Indeed, the new federal (CAFE) standards that require automakers to produce more fuel-efficient cars are among the biggest environmental achievements of the Obama Administration.

What car did I get?

After considering all these issues, I made a pretty conventional choice. I got a Prius hybrid. It really gets 50 mpg. (On a recent trip out to Geauga County I got 55.5 mpg driving normally.) For someone who’s really concerned about carbon emissions and climate change, I guess it sets a good example.

Another good thing about a Prius is that it’s a really boring car to drive. There’s nothing exciting about its handling, acceleration, or occupant comforts. So I hope I won’t be tempted to drive it more than necessary.

But I’m not proud of buying it. Ultimately, the term “green car” is an oxymoron. While some cars are obviously better than others, they all are part of a transportation system that is inherently destructive and costly. Even if all cars ran on sunlight, they would still cause many environmental and social problems -- including water pollution from stormwater runoff, urban sprawl, degraded cities and public spaces, the paving over of greenspace, the financial pressures of car dependency, and the promotion of a consumer society that wants everything bigger and faster.

So think of your car as a necessary evil -- something you need to function given the sprawling land use patterns and automobile-dependent transportation system in Northeast Ohio. And keep imagining how our region can be transformed so we can all drive less.

P.S. Drive frugally

Once you’ve bought a car, the environmental considerations are not over. Your impact can vary a lot depending on how you drive and how well you maintain the car. Here are tips for better driving and maintenance.

Do you have other tips or comments about buying a car? Please leave a comment below!

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David Beach
3 years ago

The LEEDCo offshore wind project is still alive, but it was slowed last year by the failure to secure a big federal grant that would have funded the first set of demonstration turbines. Engineering and permitting work continues as supporters figure out alternate financing. The goal is still to have six-turbine pilot project constructed 7 to 10 miles offshore of Cleveland. And the dream is that this will spur the development of wind turbine manufacturing in Northeast Ohio.

3 years ago

Thanks for the response. Whatever happened to the plan to put windmills on Lake Erie?

David Beach
3 years ago

I think hydrogen fuel cells will have a future in transportation, especially in trucks that require more power than batteries can provide. But fuel cell vehicles have the same carbon footprint issue as electric vehicles.

Hydrogen fuel cells are not energy sources. They are energy conversion devices that use hydrogen as a fuel. It takes energy to produce the hydrogen -- typically the energy to split hydrogen atoms from natural gas or water molecules. If that energy comes from clean, renewable sources like solar or wind, then the fuel cell cars can be low-carbon alternatives. But if the energy comes from Ohio's dirty power grid, then they are not so good.

3 years ago

Thoughts on hydrogen fuel cells? Is the process to extract hydrogen too carbon heavy to be worth it?

David Beach
3 years ago

Yes, it's possible, as long as the homes don't have enormous yards. Transportation planners estimate that it takes a housing density of 6-8 dwelling units per acre to support frequent bus service. A neighborhood of single-family detached homes with two-car garages accessed off an alley can have around 10 housing units per acre. The City of Lakewood has an overall housing density of about 8 units per acre, with its attractive mix large homes, small homes, and multi-family buildings.

But that is still relatively low density. Transit use increases a lot when densities get up to around 25-30 units per acre. That can be achieved in a neighborhood of row houses.

3 years ago

Can the single family home and the density required for a transit system that would allow for (more) folks to go car-free in Cleveland co-exist?

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