Are hybrid cars better for the environment?

 

In most developed countries, policies have been announced to phase out gas-powered cars over the next 10 – 20 years. Most of these policies aim to ensure that zero emission cars are the only cars sold after this period. That means we’re in quite a strange period at the moment. Gas-powered vehicles are still the standard but its clear that the time-of-death on them is approaching. If you’re interested in buying a car now, it isn’t an easy decision about what to buy. Should you buy the gas-powered car you’re familiar with? Is now the time for an electric vehicle? Or should you ease into the transition with a hybrid car? In this post, I’m going to take a deeper look into hybrid cars, something that a lot of people think could be a good transitional step. We will find out if hybrid cars are better for the environment.

When we’re taking a look at these cars, it’s important to note that there are several types of hybrid cars. In order to judge their sustainability properly, we will be looking at each one individually.

Standard hybrids

Standard hybrid cars
The Toyota Prius is one of the most common standard hybrid cars.

The standard kind of hybrid has a very small battery which is charged by braking. The battery works in combination with the combustion engine to reduce the amount of fuel consumed. Whilst it has the advantage of being able to use traditional gas stations, the battery is so small that it can’t really be used for most drives without the gas engine. When driving in cities they do tend to charge a reasonable amount, since you need to start and stop more frequently.

When you’re driving at a higher speed the benefits of this battery become smaller and smaller. It is clear that standard hybrids won’t allow us to reach our environmental goals and depending on how and where you’re driving, may not save you much money on fuel either.

Plug-in hybrids

Plug-in hybrid cars
Plug-in hybrids need to be charged but can also drive entirely on electricity for short trips.

This car has a larger battery than a standard hybrid. That means the battery needs to be charged itself through a charging point (hence the ‘plug-in’ name :)). Some of these vehicles use electricity exclusively until it runs out; only then does it switch to gas. Others use a ‘blended mode’ where both are used at the same time. The former can normally run for 20 – 50 miles (32km – 80km) on electricity and then will switch to gas. As a result, they are useful for frequent short drives where you can charge them when you get home. In these cases, the carbon emissions are low.

If you plan on using them for longer drives, they can be less ideal. In this case, you have to use traditional gas stations as well as charging the battery, which adds additional complexity. In addition, due to the weight of the batteries, the car will typically have lower fuel efficiency when using gas. When the gas engine is being exclusively used, you will be using more gas than a typical gas-powered car. They can also have higher maintenance costs due to the additional components, which adds more points-of-failure.

Range extended electric vehicles

Range extended electric vehicles
There isn’t a lot of range extended electric vehicles available anymore, but the BMW i3 REX was one of the more popular options (photo source: Carmagazine.co.uk)

Whilst the other types are mostly gas-powered cars with various sizes of electric batteries included, a range extended electric vehicle is fundamentally an electric vehicle which has a small gas motor. This charges the battery when the battery of the car is low. This increases the range of the car by a small amount. The benefit of this is clear – a common reason why people are reluctant to buy an all-electric car is ‘range anxiety’, where they are worried that the battery will run out and they won’t be able to charge it.

It also has the advantage that you will be using electricity rather than gas most of the time. However, these have been losing favor with both manufacturers and consumers due to continuous improvements in battery technology. This means that the need for a range extender is getting smaller over time. Because of this these cars are largely unavailable, especially in developed, densely populated countries.

Benefits of hybrids

Now that we’ve looked at the different types, we can look at some of the benefits of them as a whole:

  • Hybrids tend to have higher resale value than traditional cars.
  • Reduction is gas usage (better for the environment!)
  • Potential to save cost on gas, depending on how the car is used.

Some critics of hybrids and electric cars state that because electricity generation in most countries is reliant on fossil fuels, there are no real benefits of using electricity over regular gas. This is not the case. Whilst it is true that there is work to be done on renewables in our electricity grids, most countries have at least some percentage of renewables in the mix. This reduces the carbon emissions. Even if the amount of renewables was 0%, a car running on electricity would still be more efficient because it converts about 75% – 80% of the energy into power at the wheels compared to a gas-powered engine which only converts 12% – 30%.

Drawbacks of hybrids

Whilst hybrid cars can reduce your environmental impact, it isn’t quite as simple as that.
Here’s a summary of the cons:

  • The way that you drive will have a significant influence: if you’re driving long distance or aren’t able to charge the battery on a very regular basis, you’re going to be using gas a lot of the time and this comes with the same drawbacks of a regular gas car (including the emissions and the air pollution).
  • It might be more effort having to refuel your car as well as potentially needing to charge its battery.
  • The car itself will likely cost more to purchase.
  • Hybrids come with higher maintenance costs.

Are hybrid cars better for the environment?

It’s tough to decide between an all-electric and a hybrid car right now.

Now that we’ve reached the conclusion, it’s time to look at whether hybrids are better for the environment and whether it is a worthwhile purchase. These are two questions that should be answered seperately.

It is clear that for most people, hybrid cars are better for the environment than a traditional car. If you have a car which is using electricity, that electricity usage is better for the environment than gas right now and will continue to become even better as the share of renewables in the electricity grid grows.

Comparing hybrids to to all-electric cars: the difference can range from a small to very large difference depending on the types of trips you take. If you’re driving short distances (like city drivers) and can frequently charge your vehicle, then a plug-in hybrid can use electricity almost all the time and therefore operates similarly to an all-electric vehicle.

However, if you’re planning on taking longer trips, then you’re going to be using a reasonable amount of gas due to the extra weight of the car. Unsurprisingly, this does make an all-electric vehicle the better choice.

Should I buy a hybrid?

If we’re looking at whether a hybrid vehicle is a worthwhile purchase, you need to look at your personal circumstances. It’s clear that emissions-free vehicles are our future, whether that be electric, hydrogen or another type of fuel. In this transition period, you can either go all-in and switch to an all-electric vehicle now or you can transition more slowly and get a hybrid until all-electric cars are more common. There’s an argument that all-electric cars won’t become the standard until people start to buy them. That doesn’t mean you should be forced to do that if you’re not comfortable yet though. As we’ve said before on this blog, making a difference is about finding your comfort level.

If you are wanting to take longer trips and are in an area which is improving its electric vehicle infrastructure, I’d probably recommend getting an all-electric vehicle instead. You’ll be surprised at the huge improvements in range that have been achieved in recent years. If you frequently take shorter trips and can charge your car at home (or if you live in an area with little electric car infrastructure) then a plug-in hybrid which does not use ‘blended mode’ might be a great way for you to travel with low carbon emissions.

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