Electric cars and hybrids are popping up like weeds in Portland. I know they're supposed to reduce greenhouse gases, but how much, if at all, are these vehicles actually helping? —Gardener Al
This question really makes me want to blow everyone's mind with a contrarian hot take beginning with the word "actually." Unfortunately, I can't.
In spite of a little-known fact that in a different universe could have rendered the conventional wisdom on this subject wrong, in this case the boring, obvious answer—the one you'd get from any marginally sentient 5-year-old—is correct.
But first, enjoy a very slightly lukewarm take on electric cars: Which do you think is responsible for more CO2 per mile—gasoline-burning hybrids like the Prius or all-electric plug-in vehicles like the Nissan Leaf?
You think it's the Prius, right? Ha! Suck it, Twitterverse! Actually, depending on what type of power plants generate the electricity in your area, the Leaf may be the dirtier choice. In West Virginia, for example, where (surprise) 95 percent of electricity comes from coal, the Leaf has roughly a 50 percent larger carbon footprint than the Prius. (In clean-energy-loving California, of course, the opposite is true.)
But back to your real question, and the obvious answer: A Prius pumps 51 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air for every 100 miles driven. An average (modern) gasoline car puts out 81 pounds. Since 81 is more than 51, hybrids are performing as advertised. Hot take your way out of that one, Sean Hannity!
However, there is that little-known fact: Because electric vehicles rely more on lightweight but energy-intensive-to-produce aluminum, and because they require massive, hard-to-manufacture battery packs, building an electric or hybrid vehicle releases 15 to 68 percent more carbon into the atmosphere than building a conventional car, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Of course, as soon as these vehicles get out on the road, the less-polluting electric or hybrid car starts making up the difference, and passes the gas (no pun intended) car after six months to a year of driving.
So. If you plan to total your brand-new car in the first three months, go ahead and get the Corolla. Everyone else should get the Prius, Leaf or whatever, just like every 5-year-old in the world already knew. Meh.