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How Green are "Green" Cars?

Jerry Edgerton

Photo courtesy of Nissan

Is a hybrid car on your wish list?

Would you maybe even consider a plug-in electric car next time you buy? Twenty-six percent of those surveyed in a recent Consumer Reports poll said they would.

If environmental principles—as well as saving money on gas—motivate you, make sure the green car that tops your list is truly green. Before you decide to purchase, consider the start-to-finish environmental impact of making and powering these cars.

Hybrid cars, with their high gas mileage, emit fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming than do most gas-only cars; fewer gallons of gas burned equals fewer emissions. And auto show versions of the Nissan Leaf (above) battery-powered, plug-in electric car correctly say "Zero Emission" on the side.

But how much of a net "green gain" are you earning as a car owner—once you factor in energy use and waste materials from manufacturing and power plant smokestacks spewing pollutants and greenhouse gases?

These issues are charging up with recent developments. Federal regulations require the vehicles of each auto maker to average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016; more hybrids and new electric plug-in cars figure into the strategy to meet that requirement. The large batteries that power hybrids and electrics all or part of the time take extra manufacturing.

With the plug-in electric Nissan Leaf and the competing Chevrolet Volt going on sale in fall 2010, debate has flared about whether such electric vehicles just generate "elsewhere emissions" from the power plants needed to charge them.

How much "green gain" isn't the right question, says Luke Tonachel, senior transportation analyst for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, New York. "Transportation and electricity generation together account for two-thirds of global warming gases. We need to clean up both tailpipe emissions and power plants," he says.

The manufacturing issue is less public so far. But an organization called Green Car Congress sponsored a study to see how major auto makers compared in their use of water and their plants' discharge of pollutants and greenhouse gases. Toyota and BMW were the clear leaders, with Hyundai and Honda also faring well. General Motors, Ford Motor Co., and Chrysler all trailed. But much has changed in the industry since that study concluded in 2007, and those broad measurements are not the whole story.

"Transportation and electricity generation together account for two-thirds of global warming gases."

Ford converted its River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich., which manufactures F-150 pickups, to be more energy efficient, including electricity-generating solar panels that supplement the plant's power supply.

Ford also makes seat cushions from soybean-based materials. Ford, which already has such seats in its Mustang, Escape, and pickup models, plans to expand this material to 40% of all its vehicle seats. The company says producing the soy material reduces greenhouse gas emissions and energy use compared with petroleum-based foam.

Environmentalists also praise Subaru's efforts. In Lafayette, Ind., the Subaru plant recycles all the waste from its manufacturing and sends almost nothing to landfills. The plant even recycles and reuses sludge and solvent left over from painting the cars.

So how can you tell if a green car really is good for the environment?

Check the emission classification

Car companies don't market these government classifications much since they involve a confusing system of tiers and bins. But if you buy a Super Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV), it will discharge only about one pound of smog-causing hydrocarbons in 100,000 miles compared with 10 pounds of emissions for a conventional vehicle.

Most hybrids get this designation, including the Nissan Altima, Ford Escape and Fusion, Toyota Prius, and Camry hybrid.

Such hybrids also cut greenhouse gases. A study by the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Ill., showed that between 10% and 20% of a vehicle's greenhouse gas emissions come from manufacturing. The study also found that—even including its manufacture emissions—a hybrid on the road for 15 years would generate about half the greenhouse gas emissions overall of a gas-only vehicle of similar size.

"Smart charging" can program an electric vehicle to charge at off-peak hours.

Check your power sources

Not everyone will have a chance at an electric car this year. Nissan will sell the Leaf first in cities and states building charging stations—principally in California, Oregon, Arizona, and Tennessee. And Chevy will introduce the Volt first in Michigan, California, and Washington, D.C., before going nationwide soon after.

But power-plant pollutants and greenhouse gases vary greatly depending on where you live. For instance, Indiana and Kentucky get more than 90% of their electricity from heavily polluting coal plants. But California, where air pollution problems have been severe for a long time, has reduced its coal generating to 1%, with 48% in low-emission natural gas and the balance from no-emission hydroelectric, nuclear, wind, and solar generation. To see the balance in your area, visit Get Energy Active and click on your home state.

Check when you could charge your car

Chevrolet and Nissan dealers with the first electric cars plan to help buyers set up at-home charging stations. Charging at off-peak hours when rates are low would save money and limit the need for new power plants. But you won't have to wake up late at night to plug in the car—so-called "smart charging" can program the vehicle to charge at those off-peak hours. Ford, which will sell an electric car in 2011, recently announced a joint venture with Microsoft for a smart charging system.

Depending on where you live, you won't face some of these decisions for a few years. For now, if you're buying a new or used car, opt for the highest-mileage vehicle that fits your taste and your budget. Using less gas helps your budget and the environment.

Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."

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