What’s Cleaner, An Electric Truck or Plugin Hybrid Truck? It Depends… (Part 4)

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If you’ve made it this far, I probably don’t need to rehash the methods and sources again, but if you landed in this article, here’s a link to Part 1 so you can see how I arrived at my numbers here and even play with the spreadsheet yourself if you disagree with any of it.

With that having been said, let’s move on to looking at how towing affects this graph.

As you can see, the graph doesn’t look that different from the normal graph in Part 2, but the slopes of every line are all similarly steeper, so that’s a big deceptive. Towing on the weekends with the hybrid, hypothetical PHEV, and Lightning versions of the truck obviously drives up emissions. The hybrid still stays well above the BEV and PHEV, which are fairly close together.

But, that having been said, there is one noticeable difference that towing makes: the red and yellow lines get more of a gap between them. This is because towing efficiency on gas power gets worse faster than electric towing does, at least emissions-wise. This widened gap really puts that on display.

On the other hand, many people would be perfectly happy with towing on the yellow line (PHEV) because their weekend trip to the lake or their favorite camping spot wouldn’t be interrupted by charging stops, or worse, not being able to get there at all. So, the PHEV could be an important selling point for people who tow for recreational reasons on the weekend. Just getting those people to charge up and drive electric during the week and for around-town runs to Home Depot or whatever still bags us most of the environmental benefits.

Commercial vehicles that tow part-time are probably going to want to live on that red line (BEV). Unless they’re doing some sort of unusual over-the-road towing, the construction or maintenance truck that occasionally tows a trailer isn’t going to end up hunting for DC fast charging on those local drives. The cost savings of not having to buy gas for towing a backhoe or trencher would make it a much better job for a BEV in most cases.

Once again, which truck would be the cleanest is really about picking the truck that gives the most environmental benefit for different users. One size definitely does NOT fit all here.

What This Looks Like With Solar Charging At Home (Or Business)

Towing part of the time doesn’t seem to give the BEV a huge benefit, but as with before, powering electric vehicles with cleaner power drastically changes the chart:

There’s a lot to unpack here.

First off, as I explained in previous parts to this article, I used NREL figures for lifetime emissions per kWh of solar. I wasn’t lazy and I didn’t put solar in as zero emissions. After all, it takes energy to build, transport, install, remove, and recycle them. Even with some emissions, they’re still drastically cleaner than grid power is today.

This clean benefit helped the Lightning BEV the most. Towing 10% of the time really didn’t hurt it much because doubling minuscule emissions still was minuscule emissions for that 10% of the time. If you’re doing local towing for business and you want to tell people your business is doing right by the environment, get an electric truck and put solar on the roof. It’s truly the cleanest option.

If you’re an office worker who does the occasional run to Home Depot and tows a boat up to the lake on the weekends, and you’re not excited about having to hunt for DC fast chargers to get back home on those trips, the PHEV may be the cleanest choice that fits your personal needs with minimum inconvenience. But, if at all possible, charge that battery pack up with solar power. You can see how much better for the environment and your children’s future doing most of your driving on electric is, and you’re getting most of the way to what a BEV would do (and probably for cheaper, making it an option at all for you).

PHEVs Really Make Sense For Larger Pickup Trucks Right Now

One category of trucks that really concerns me for the future are 3/4 and 1 ton pickups. Unlike the half-ton, which is frequently used in the suburbs by people who don’t use the truck’s capability for work, larger pickups are expected to deliver a lot more towing capacity.

So, I decided to see what that might look like. I created a 250 kWh F-350 Lightning, a 100 kWh F-350 PHEV, and put in real numbers for a diesel 2wd non-dually F-350. I assumed solar charging 90% of the time for the BEV and PHEV, and doubled emissions ten percent of the time for all vehicles for occasional towing.

As you can see, the hypothetical F-350 Lightning looks a lot like a Hummer EV, but its emissions after production has a pretty flat line. But, there are some serious drawbacks to this truck. It would be extremely expensive, it still wouldn’t have great towing range, and it would take up a lot of the battery supply just so the slightly more enlightened version of the Brodozer crowd could look rich like Hummer EV owners. If a bunch of these were sold, Ford wouldn’t have batteries to put in other vehicles like the F-150 Lightning, Mach-E, or more affordable future EVs.

In other words, building such a monstrosity would be a terrible idea. Ford doesn’t do this for very good reasons, but it may be feasible in the 2030s when battery supplies are improved and prices for battery packs are far lower. So, we will eventually see this truck.

Tesla’s going to go ahead and go for it with the Cybertruck’s largest battery offering, but it has access to a larger battery supply than other automakers. It’s still probably stupid, but people have a right to be stupid. But, the damage will probably be limited by the high price of the vehicle with the largest battery, and people who won’t use it probably largely won’t buy it.

But, the real educational info from this chart is that yellow line, and it shows us that you can still get far better emissions than the diesel with only a 100 kWh pack like you’d get in the F-150 Lightning. The truck would still need a gas or diesel range extender, and it might be possible to press something like a V6 or 4-cylinder EcoBoost into that role, but always running at ideal RPM in a series hybrid configuration to save weight and complexity.

The range for a big pickup on only 100 kWh of battery power wouldn’t be great, but it would be enough for around-town driving, including those runs to Home Depot. For trips up to the lake or the campsite, towing could happen on gas. For commercial users who only drive locally, the PHEV would probably work well for most of their needs with only occasional gas or diesel burning to finish out a longer than usual day.

The Right Tool For The Job At The Right Price

I know this article series may seem like it’s tilted toward PHEVs, but it really isn’t. There are situations where the BEV is clearly the cleanest choice and will do the job perfectly, and with minimal hassle. But, there are some situations and buyers for whom the BEV version of a half-ton pickup just doesn’t meet needs, or doesn’t meet them at a price point the buyer could afford. This is even more of a problem as we wade into larger pickups (3/4 and 1 ton).

So, the takeaway from these charts shouldn’t be “PHEVs are better” or “BEVs are better.” I can’t honestly say either of those things in 2023. One size doesn’t fit all, and it won’t fit more people until the battery supply increases and prices drop for them. More importantly, as battery recycling comes into play and the emissions of battery production fall, the BEVs will be the overwhelmingly superior choice for nearly all situations. We can look forward to that.

What it really comes down to in 2023 is finding the right vehicle for the job at a price that works. If anybody tries to tell you otherwise, they’re trying to sell you something.

All chart images provided by Jennifer Sensiba.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1996 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba