December 3, 2016

From the gear-head’s garage: Hybrids are not as environmentally friendly as they seem

Contributed by Joseph Strong, Mass Communications Major

Some time ago, a rumor circulated around the car world about the Prius. People were saying that the Toyota Prius does more environmental damage than the Hummer. At first, I thought the assertion sounded completely ridiculous. After I looked into it more, I did find some truth. Like any hybrid, the Prius uses an electric motor solely for city driving. When you hit the highway, or just accelerate quickly, the regular gasoline-powered motor kicks in.

The first two generations of the Prius carried nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. To make these cells, Toyota uses nickel from Sudbury, Ontario. Great! They are very environmentally-mindful people. What’s the problem?

Well, the nickel is then shipped to a processing plant in Europe and then to China to be converted into “nickel foam,” according to technology news website TechnoBuffalo. Then it arrives in Japan for vehicle assembly, and finally the completed product returns to North America to be sold.

According to Sustainability Expert Pablo Päster (of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Energy and Environment in Wuppertal, Germany), “Making a Prius consumes 113 million BTUs (British Thermal Units). A single gallon of gas contains about 113,000 BTUs. So Toyota’s green wonder guzzles the equivalent of 1,000 gallons before it clocks its first mile.”

Okay, so in theory it’s creating a thousand miles worth of environmental damage before I even drive it off the lot. But won’t 50 miles per gallon shrink my carbon footprint? That is pretty fantastic mileage for cars sold in North America. But what happens if I have to replace the batteries that power the hybrid car? Wouldn’t you lose that financial advantage built up by that great economy?

Well, Toyota has an eight-year or 100,000-mile warranty, so that does inspire some confidence. After searching online, I have even found some hybrids that have more than 250,000 miles. But for argument’s sake, let’s say the battery does fail, and the warranty has just expired. What will a new battery cost me? Toyota says the cost of an replacement is just under $4,000. While the company gives a rebate worth just about a grand, that’s still almost $3,000 to replace it.

This is assuming you’ll have to replace the battery — which you probably won’t. During the course of my research, I had an incredibly hard time finding examples of these batteries failing. In essence, my issue with the batteries in hybrids are not how they work, but how they are made. Breathe easy, hybrid drivers — your car is not as bad for the Earth as a Hummer. However, if you’d like to buy one, may I suggest purchasing one like a vegetarian would buy a leather jacket. If you don’t want to support the manufacturing method, pick one up second-hand.

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