Friday, September 01, 2006

The Hummer: Environmental Champion?

I wrote earlier this week about the "green" score of various electronics manufacturers, from an article which I read at the Greenpeace website. I acknowledged at the time that I was surprised by the results of the Greenpeace rankings. I expected Apple to be more environmentally responsible, and Dell less so. I put my error down to an unreasonable preconception, with no real basis in evidence, or even common sense. It was just my own mental slant. Well, a reader left a comment at that post which has led me to another surprising article, and contradicted another preconception that, before this, I would have told you was based very solidly in the world of evidence, common sense and rationality, and that I was completely unbiased in that assessment. I had a hard time believing what I read.

Would you believe, on it's face, that a gas-guzzling Hummer would consume less energy over the course of its life than a gas/electric hybrid Toyota Prius? I didn't think so. The Hummer is huge. The Hummer is heavy. The Hummer gets something like three gallons to the mile, right? (Well, maybe that last is a bit hyperbolic.) The Prius, on the other hand, is small. It is lightweight. It will drive cross country and back again several times before you have to refill the thimble-sized gas tank. (Slight hyperbole here, but in my own defense, I didn't say which country. Perhaps it was Monaco.) Any reasonable person would conclude that the Prius has the Hummer beat in a big way for energy consumption and its resultant pollution.

Not so, according to Shikha Dalmia at She compares the two vehicles in total energy consumption, cradle to grave you might say, drawing on a two year study by auto analyst and President of CNW Marketing Research, Art Spinella, which examined what he calls "Dust to Dust" data, including, among other things, the energy it takes to design and produce them, the energy they require to operate, and the energy it takes to dispose of them. Dalmia says how "fancy" a car is really affects its total energy cost. In this case fancy doesn't seem to mean how many cup holders it has. She points out several factors that gain the Hummer ground in the head to head competition with the Prius.

One such factor is vehicle life. The Hummer is designed to last three times longer than the Prius. That's three times less vehicle production, thus less energy (and pollution) used in manufacture, materials, and disposal. Sophistication plays a role. The Hummer's engine is much simpler than its hybrid competitor, as it doesn't combine gas and electric systems. Not being as complex, "it takes much less time and energy to manufacture." Materials also shift the balance toward the Hummer. Made of steel, which costs less and is easier to make than the specialty light-weight materials that compose the Prius, its production is not nearly as complex and costly. The same materials also give the Hummer the advantage in disposal. This manufacture and disposal all requires energy, and creates pollution, thus driving up the true cost of both vehicles, but less so with the Hummer, thereby giving it the real energy edge.

Dalmia says this comparison doesn't just hold up with the Prius, but with other small hybrids as well:

For instance, the dust-to-dust energy cost of the bunny-sized Honda Civic hybrid is $3.238 per mile. This is quite a bit more than the $1.949 per mile that the elephantine Hummer costs. The energy cots of SUVs such as the Tahoe, Escalade, and Navigator are similarly far less than the Civic hybrid.
All of the factors I've listed above affect the total energy consumption of the vehicles, but Dalmia lists one final factor as having the most impact:

But the biggest reason why a Hummer's energy use is so low is that it shares many components with other vehicles and therefore its design and development energy costs are spread across many cars.

It is not possible to do this with a specialty product like hybrid. All in all, Spinella insists, the energy costs of disposing a Hummer are 60 percent less than an average hybrid's and its design and development costs are 80 percent less.

This is where I believe hybrid buyers who have purchased their vehicles because they want to save energy and do something for the environment can take heart. Dalmia's article, and Spinella's study, examine environmental and energy costs as they stand now, but I couldn't help but draw some different conclusions from the one's that Dalmia determined. She proposes "...a catchy slogan for the next Save the Earth campaign: Have you hugged a Hummer today?" However, the thing that struck me as I read the piece (besides the obvious shock that a Hummer could in any way be better for the environment than a Prius) was that some of these costs were based on the economies of scale principle.

Part of what makes the hybrids cost more, economically and environmentally, than their exclusively gas-driven counterparts is that they are, in fact, still specialty items. Part of the Hummer's advantage comes from the fact it uses long-employed systems, technologies, and materials. Hybrids don't benefit from the economy that comes from sharing many components with other vehicles at this point, because there aren't that many vehicles yet which work on the same principles. They will be better able to spread the energy costs for design and development out across many cars when there are more cars in this category. As light-weight alloys become more common, they will be able to take advantage of refined production techniques, and larger-scale manufacture to bring the total cost for them to a more competitive level. Also, as these materials become more common, human ingenuity should figure out better ways to dispose of and recycle them, thus reducing that cost as well.

It sounds to me, too, like hybrids could use some of those new-fangled nanotube-based ultracapacitors we were talking about a couple of weeks ago here at the Meow. Taking some of the chemical processes out of the battery energy storage for hybrid vehicles might help shift the balance again a little more toward the hybrid's favor. Since this study took into account the total environmental and energy cost, including disposal, not having environmentally damaging chemical batteries on the "we have to get rid of this now" list when the car finally kicks the bucket (seat) would help. Working on car longevity would be in the best interests of hybrid auto makers as well, at least if their motives for producing hybrids in the first place really are centered around environmental responsibility. One assumes, however, that some of these improvements will happen as the industry matures. One hopes, anyway.

Dalmia's article goes more in depth into exactly how the environmental and energy costs are calculated. I drew my own conclusions from her report, as I'm sure will you. I came away surprised, but not despairing for the hybrid industry. My husband and have two vehicles, an SUV and a smaller economy car, and neither of them are hybrids. They both do the job we need them to do, and I can't say I feel guilty about either of them. Although, if they come up with an affordable hybrid SUV that can tow our travel trailer, I will be happy to consider one in the future, contributing to that economy of scale thing that I already mentioned. All in all, I'd say SUV drivers and hybrid drivers both can come away from this study feeling relatively self-satisfied. SUV drivers can say that their car is better for the environment than the Prius and its hybrid companions. Hybrid drivers can say they are on the forefront of change, and paying the costs now for future benefit. Both can be happy with their choice on some level, which is convenient, since most people are going to do what they want to anyway--at least if my husband and I are any example.

p.s. Thanks Danny.