Greenpeace and Transport & Environment have conducted a study of how owners of plug-in hybrid cars use them in real world driving and come to a startling conclusion — plug-in hybrids are no damn good at lowering emissions if drivers don’t plug them in. This revelation is intended to convince UK regulators to include PHEVs in their proposed ban of gasoline and diesel powered cars by 2030. Whoa. Who’da thunk it, huh? A car with a plug needs to be plugged in! That is shocking news.
In testing, manufacturers claim PHEVs average just 44 grams per kilometer of carbon dioxide but in real world driving those cars actually emit an average of 117 grams per kilometer according to data compiled on usage by 20,000 plug-in hybrid drivers who have chosen to record their mileage and fuel consumption for surveys or who drive company or leased vehicles whose fuel efficiency is recorded. By comparison, conventional cars emit about 165 grams of CO2 per kilometer.
According to the data, lifetime emissions of a PHEV average 28 tonnes of CO2, according to a BBC report. By comparison, the average petrol or diesel car is estimated to emit between 39 and 41 tonnes of CO2 from fuel during its lifetime and a conventional hybrid would typically emit 33 tonnes.
Why the discrepancy? Part of it can be explained by the fact that many PHEV owners don’t bother to plug their cars in at the end of the day, especially if the car is part of a fleet. Some readers may recall the US government bought a bunch of early Chevy Volts and was shocked to learn they didn’t get nearly the mileage expected. Come to find out, many of them never got plugged in. Some drivers were shocked to find out their cars even had a plug! As Wired said at the time, “The whole point of a plug-in hybrid is to plug it in!
A second reason is that PHEV’s need to run the onboard gasoline engine in order to bring the passenger compartment up to a temperature for occupants. In the EU, they are programmed to activate the engine if the ambient air temperature falls below 14º C (that’s 57º F for you people who live in North America.) Greenpeace is quick to point out that the average daily temperature in much of the UK is at or below 14º C half the year.
Greenpeace conveniently ignores that conventional hybrids also use their engines to provide heat in cool weather. Nor does it mention that many conventional hybrids run their engines almost constantly while in operation. A plug-in hybrid can complete a typical day of driving without ever starting the engine — assuming the temperature is above 14º C, of course. Chevrolet actually programmed the engine in the Volt to start every few months just to keep internal components properly lubricated. Some CleanTechnica readers report driving an entire year in their Chevy Volts on less than 5 gallons of gasoline. It seems likely most manufacturers have figured out how to build plug-in hybrids that function better than a 10 year old Volt.
One other knock on plug-in hybrids, which Transport & Environment calls “fake electric cars,” is that some use the engine to provide extra power under full acceleration. We would hasten to point out that only occurs in poorly designed PHEVs and is a characteristic of Toyota’s Prius cars that use that company’s Synergy Drive. Those cars activate the engine just to overcome speed bumps in a mall parking lot.
Greg Archer, UK director of Transport & Environment, says “PHEVs are not electric cars and claims that in cities plug-in hybrids have zero emissions are just mischievous, misleading marketing. Unless the battery is frequently charged, these fake electric cars are actually worse for the climate than conventional cars.” Yes, Greg, you dolt. A plug-in hybrid needs to be plugged in. That apparently is too abstruse a concept for your poor brain to comprehend. And average emissions of 117 g/km is NOT worse than the 165 g/km of a conventional car. Where is your mind, sir?
The research that Greenpeace and Transport & Environment cite proves conclusively that plug-in hybrids emit less carbon dioxide than conventional cars but they must be condemned and cast into the outer darkness because some owners can’t be bothered to take the 10 seconds needed to plug them in at the end of the day or choose to run the heater. Ordinarily we support the hard work of Greenpeace but in this case their bias against internal combustion engines has overruled their common sense.
Calling PHEVs “fake electric cars” is just silly. We agree some of the early offerings, which had an electric only operating range of less than 10 miles, were stupid cars. (We’re looking at you, BMW and Audi.) But a modern PHEV can provide lower emissions to a wide segment of drivers at a price that is considerably less than a battery electric vehicle. The protestations of Greenpeace and Transportation and Environment would actually penalize low income drivers who otherwise would be driving conventional cars that spew clouds of carbon emissions out their tailpipes.
Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, people, and please stop sounding like Donald Trump. It doesn’t help your cause. By the way, the link you provided to your research is broken. If you are going to bitch, at least be transparent about the basis for your complaint. Now get back to work saving the planet.