Reducing Carbon Emissions — Hybrid Vs. Plug-In Hybrid Vs. Battery Electric

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Led by China, the world is racing toward a transition to battery electric cars and trucks. Several countries have announced or are considering a ban on vehicles with internal combustion engines beginning as soon as 2030. Tesla is leading the EV parade, but Volkswagen says it will invest $50 billion in EV technology over the next 5 years and Chinese companies like BYD and SAIC are leaders in their home market.

2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid
2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid. Credit: Toyota

Why is this happening? Because the Earth is drowning in carbon dioxide emissions and must find a way to reduce them as quickly as possible. Most of us, especially regular CleanTechnica readers, are convinced that battery electric cars are the best if not the only way to do so. But what if we are wrong?

The people at Emissions Analytics know a thing or two about exhaust emissions, having been involved in exposing the Volkswagen diesel cheating scheme. More recently, they have warned that emissions testing in Europe may meet the letter of the law but does not accurately measure real world emissions — a fact that may or may not allow manufacturers to fudge their emissions numbers.

Now they have issued a report that could upend the entire emissions reduction debate. They say that while battery electric vehicles clearly do a better job of reducing carbon emissions, the issue is not just one of emissions but one of timing as well. To put it simply, they argue that modern hybrids, which have batteries of 2 kWh or less, can be more effective at reducing tailpipe emissions today while the lower emissions benefits of battery electric cars are years away.

Confused? Don’t be. Let’s begin with a March 29 LinkedIn post by Kevin Brown, an emissions consultant who lives in Ontario. He writes, “I’m going to use available data primarily obtained from the US EPA’s fuel economy website (See table below). As hybrids employ battery electric drives combined with internal combustion engines, they are benefiting from continued refinements in both of these areas and making some impressive fuel economy gains.

“For example, the 2019 Toyota Camry LE hybrid using a mere 1 kWh lithium ion battery offers a fuel economy of 52 mpg — an improvement of 53% over the 34 mpg rating of the best non-hybrid version of the same car. In addition, the range of the Camry LE hybrid at 676 miles is significantly longer than the non-hybrid / standard version of the Camry and twice that of a Tesla Model S 100D equipped with a 100 kWh battery.”

tailpipe emissions

“As a further example and using the non-hybrid version of the Camry as a base reference, a single battery electric vehicle with a 60 kWh battery such as the Chevrolet Bolt driven 9500 miles annually would reduce CO2 emissions by 2128 kg in the state of California or just 979 kg in Michigan. However, on an equivalent battery capacity basis, 60 Toyota Camry LE hybrids each with a one kWh battery capacity would collectively reduce CO2 emissions by 62,130 kg — yielding a reduction of at least 29 times more CO2 regardless of what state they are driven in.

“While they are not zero emissions vehicles, advanced hybrid powertrains already provide greater than 35% to over 50% reduction in CO2 with relatively small batteries which supports broader and more rapid adoption. This also allows greater time for battery supply chains to mature and ensure global commodity access to all regions.”

There are other considerations, Brown adds. “As hybrids require no additional electrical utility infrastructure they support significantly lower transportation CO2 emissions today while allowing coal dependent regions to focus investments on their continued transition to renewable power sources.

“Yes, they don’t get much media attention today, but hybrid powertrains should be more broadly promoted as an essential component of plans towards the longer term goal of zero emissions. (Emphasis added.)

Emissions Analytics states its case in forthright terms.

“Given the urgency of the need to reduce CO2, paradoxically BEVs may not be the best way to achieve it with their supply chain, production capacity, infrastructure and customer acceptance challenges. The assertion that BEVs are required to solve air quality problems is confusing the argument — cities in Europe can be brought into compliance with conventional internal combustion engines, with technology on the market today.

“Electrification is first and foremost a CO2 reduction technology, but what strategy mix represents the correct path? The apparent consensus is to transition to pure electric vehicles as rapidly as possible. But is this singular focus better than a combined strategy employing a wide variety of hybrid electric vehicles?”

The issue is one of allocating scarce resources to maximize benefits.

“The problem with the pure electric vehicle approach is that the transition will be slow. BEVs need disproportionately large batteries to give acceptable consumer utility, just as battery capacity is currently a scarce resource. As cumulative CO2 emissions are important for climate change — due to the long life of the gas in the atmosphere — a smaller reduction per vehicle now, but across many more hybrid vehicles, would eliminate a far greater volume of CO2 than applying the scarce battery resource to a smaller number of BEVs. This approach also helps mitigate naturally slow fleet turnover, with the average age of cars on the road being over twelve years.”

The message here is, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” Hybrids are significantly cheaper to buy, which means they are affordable for more new car shoppers. Toyota is advertising its new RAV 4 Hybrid right now and claiming it is only $800 more than the standard model.

Hybrids have few incentives, so the whole “electric cars are for rich snobs” argument is avoided. Making many 1 to 2 kWh batteries is a more efficient use of scarce resources than making a few 60 kWh batteries. No charging network needed. No grid upgrades required. No worries for apartment and condo dwellers. No range anxiety. Nothing but cleaner skies.

The technology is mature and widely available. Toyota is even offering to share its hybrid technology with other manufacturers. If most cars on the road were as clean as a Prius, tailpipe emissions would be slashed by a third worldwide. Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Instead of banning ICE vehicles, why not mandate hybrids as the minimum level of technology acceptable for a given market?

The Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid gets an astonishing 32 mpg — about a third better fuel economy than the regular model — while having significantly lower emissions. While all the car companies are whining about meeting stricter emissions rules, they could be putting SUVs and light duty pickup trucks on the road that get far better fuel economy while spewing out a third less carbon emissions. Why wouldn’t we want to do that?

A comment posted to Kevin Brown’s article from Ameya Joshi, director of emerging technologies and regulations at Corning, makes the case for hybrids clearer. “35% improvement in fuel efficiency via hybridization is impressive, and a look at the specs of a 2019 Camry shows that the performance is not compromised either (max horsepower is actually slightly higher).

“Normalizing CO2 savings with respect to kWh of battery capacity is an interesting idea. Clearly shows that the same amount of battery goes a longer way in terms of reducing CO2 when distributed over multiple hybrids as compared to a single EV. While pure EVs powered by a clean grid clearly offer a big CO2 reduction, in terms of a more rapid reduction in CO2 for fixed incentives (taxpayer $), promoting hybrids should be given serious thought.”

Putting aside the emotional tug we all have for electric cars, is it possible that taking a deep breath and slowing down the EV transition to include more hybrid vehicles now might be the best thing for the Earth? After all, that has to be our primary focus no matter how much we all might want a Model 3 Performance in our garage right now.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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