Image courtesy of Kyle Field.

The “Greenest” Car You Can Buy In America Is The Toyota Prius Prime SE — Maybe

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The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy is an organization that focuses on using energy efficiently with as few pollutants as possible. Every year for decades it has published a list of the most efficient, least polluting vehicles for sale in America. This year, it says the “greenest” car in America may not be fully electric. The top score in 2024 went to the Toyota Prius Prime SE, a plug-in hybrid that can go 44 miles on electricity before switching to hybrid mode.

“It’s the shape of the body, the technology within it, and the overall weight,” said Peter Huether, senior research associate for transportation at ACEEE. “And all different types of Priuses are very efficient.” Notice the emphasis on weight, which will have a significant impact on the results. Plug-in hybrids like the Prius Prime SE have batteries that are much smaller and therefore lighter than a battery-electric car. The first Tesla on this year’s list, the Model Y, doesn’t show up until page four on the list, which ranks a total of 1243 vehicles. It is ranked 68th.

ACEEE says it analyzes the test results for fuel economy and emissions that automakers report to the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board, along with other specifications reported by automakers. It includes estimates of pollution from vehicle manufacturing, from the production and distribution of fuel, and from vehicle tailpipes. It considers such things as fine particles, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and other pollutants according to the health problems caused by each pollutant. It then factors in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and combines the emissions estimates into a Green Score that runs on a scale from 0 to 100. The top vehicle this year, the Toyota Prius Prime SE, received a score of 71. The average is 43 and the worst score was the Bugatti Chiron with a score of 17.

The analysis shows that simply running on electricity is not enough to guarantee that a car is “green” — its weight, battery size and overall efficiency matter too, the Washington Post says. While a gigantic electric truck weighing thousands of pounds might be better than a gas truck of the same size, both will be outmatched by a smaller, efficient gas vehicle. And the more huge vehicles there are on the road, the harder it will be for the United States to meet its goal of zeroing out emissions by 2050.

CleanTechnica readers will find much to agree with in that synopsis. Many of us bemoan the continuing march toward bigger, heavier vehicles that eat up too many resources and require too much fuel — whether gasoline or electricity — to power them. Below are the top 12 cars in this year’s greenest car report:

Prius Prime SE Leads The Way

 

This year’s list places many plug-in hybrids near the top. The vehicles, which can travel on electric power alone for 20 to 50 miles, have a few downsides, the Washington Post says. Drivers are forced to maintain both an electric motor and a gas-powered engine, for example, and studies suggest these cars have the highest maintenance costs for precisely that reason. They also have the highest incidence of fires of any category of vehicles. They generally don’t allow DC fast charging, which limits the benefits of the electric drivetrain on longer trips

A Happy Medium

But for some drivers, plug-in hybrids can be a happy medium between converting to a battery-electric car or sticking with gasoline. Many plug-in hybrids allow drivers to do most of their regular driving on electricity (the average American drives only about 27 miles a day) and switch over to gas for longer road trips. That allows plug-in hybrid owners to avoid wrestling with America’s complicated and faulty charging infrastructure, the Post says.

The Prius Prime outranked its competitors, Peter Huether of ACEEE said, because of its small battery — which lowers the emissions and pollution associated with manufacturing — and its high efficiency. The vehicle’s battery is less than one-tenth the size of that in the monstrous Hummer EV. That means fewer emissions in making the battery and fewer rare minerals to mine and extract.

Jessika Trancik, a professor at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society who was not involved in the report, said that the GreenerCars study used a standard methodology to analyze the environmental harm of cars, but that it is hard to predict how much drivers actually run their plug-in hybrids on electricity. “In the U.S., it often comes down to whether they have an easy way to plug in while they’re at home,” she said.

The GreenerCars report assumed that Prius Prime drivers were using electricity for a little over 50% of their driving, based on data from the Society of Automotive Engineers. For drivers with charging available at home, that might be an underestimate.

Gil Tal, director of the Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California at Davis, said some studies show that drivers use their plug-in hybrids as regular hybrids, almost never charging them. That could undercut the findings from the GreenerCars report. “I don’t think the Prius Prime is the greenest,” Tal said. “If you can buy a full electric, it’s always the best, regardless of the few points of difference here.” As more wind and solar power are plugged into the grid, Tal added, electric cars will get cleaner and cleaner over time. “And your gas car will be worse over the years,” he said.

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The Takeaway

Peter Huether of ACEEE says the most important thing people looking to buy a new car can do is find the most environmentally friendly option that suits their driving needs best — whether it’s a plug-in hybrid, a conventional hybrid, or a battery-electric car. “Some folks are still concerned about the charging infrastructure,” he said. “But we still want them to have a very green option.”

At CleanTechnica, we have written dozens of articles examining the differences between hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric cars. There is no question we favor fully electric cars. Virtually everyone who works behind the scenes to make our publication possible drives either a Tesla or a Chevy Bolt. But we are all early adopters. The EV revolution is now at the point where more mainstream buyers are in the market for a new car and reluctant to jump into 100% electric transportation with both feet.

We don’t advocate against plug-in hybrids if they are able to meet the daily driving needs of the owners. Now General Motors says it is going back to plug-in hybrids after killing off one of the best — the Chevy Volt — five years ago. We do think a true PHEV should have at least 35 miles of range and should be capable of driving completely on electrons most of the time. If the engine is running constantly every time the light turns green or you encounter a hill, it’s not really an electric car with a backup engine, it’s a conventional car with a backup electric motor.

ACEEE puts more emphasis on bulk than most other organizations, and from that perspective its analysis makes sense. But there may be other parameters that affect each person’s decision about what car to buy. The emphasis on smaller, more efficient automobiles is laudable but out of step with the market, where bigger is always better and 7-passenger cars are now all the rage even if most drivers never have the need for one.

The EV revolution may be catching its breath at the moment before moving forward with renewed vigor. If a plug-in hybrid gets more people used to the idea of plugging in and using regenerative braking, then let’s have more of them while we wait for the transition to battery-electric cars to build more momentum. In the EV revolution, there is plenty of room for all technologies that lower emissions and hasten the end of the fossil fuel era.


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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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