Do EVs beat hybrids as the most environmentally-friendly vehicles?

‘Green’ is a term getting tossed around in the automotive industry a lot these days. It refers to an environmentally-friendly vehicle powered by a sustainable fuel resource and has reduced emissions. Also known as NEVs (new energy vehicles), these are their different types:

  • EVs (electric vehicles use batteries)
  • FCVs (fuel cell vehicles generate energy from compressed hydrogen)
  • PHEVs (plug-in hybrids still use an internal combustion engine but come with an option to charge the internal batteries from a wall outlet)
  • Hybrids (use an internal combustion engine to charge the battery)

Making ‘green’ vehicles isn’t easy. Remember, these were machines initially designed with a smoke-belching, steam-powered engine in the 1600s. But after four centuries of hard work and R&D, some automakers can flex some of their models whose emission per kilometer is equivalent to the energy consumed and discharged by streaming one episode of ‘Ms. Marvel.’ Wow, right?

We may not have that many NEVs in the country yet – there are a few hybrids and several EVs available in the market – but for those who think about the big picture, I’m sure you want to know which model is the ‘greenest’ of them all. Well, we’re here to figure it out.

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It won’t be as easy as checking the color of the smoke coming out of the tailpipe. To know the true environmental impact of each NEV, we have to get nerdy and count the CO2 output of the model’s entire manufacturing process, from each component to the fuel it uses.

Why are emissions and CO2 important?

For many Filipino motorists, emissions are just that inconvenient thing we have to do every year to comply with the LTO's requirements. But in the grand scheme of things, emissions are far more vital than that.

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Emissions from vehicles like carbon dioxide (CO2) are major contributing factors to global warming. If you have not noticed, the summer heat is getting more intense, and the weather is getting more and more extreme.

There is no denying the harmful impact of CO2 emissions on the environment. But how badly it damages our planet varies, depending on who is funding the research.

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Think of it this way: if you went into a restaurant 20 years (or more) ago, chances are someone is smoking inside. If you walked into a restaurant like that today, would you want to eat there?

Now imagine you can't leave the restaurant. That's our situation.

Vehicle production

I am sure you know that making a vehicle is complicated. It requires using numerous materials and chemicals in the different stages of production. You get a great-looking car in the end, but it is the planet that ends up sucking all the greenhouse gas and carcinogen emissions from acidification and eutrophication.

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Ok, so we don't have doctorates in engineering, but the people at the Graduate School of Engineering of Osaka University do. They computed the amount of CO2 released in making passenger vehicles, and they call it the Global Warming Potential (GWP).

Pure EVs and FCVs have the highest GWP because making just one unit has a greenhouse gas generation equivalent of 5,791 kg of CO2. That is like charging more than 700 million smartphones simultaneously or traveling more than 214 million kilometers.

Each hybrid (and plug-in hybrid) only costs the environment an average of 4,650 kg of CO2 per unit. That is still equal to producing more than 2 million fire extinguishers.

Conventional vehicles have the lowest at just 4,166 kg of CO2 for each, but it is still considerable. Imagine driving close to 25 million kilometers in a diesel truck because that is what it took to make your simple car.

The discrepancies between NEV types at just between 10% and 28% seem very small, but they can go as high as 70%, depending on the size of the vehicle and the kind of batteries it uses.

I hope you now see the importance of keeping your powertrain in top condition because aside from the CO2 it took to make your daily drive, there is the CO2 it emits daily. Mind your oil changes, check your filter, and keep your vehicle well-tuned to ensure its emissions are as low as possible.

Battery production

What makes NEVs harder (and more harmful to the environment) are the batteries it requires. It gets even worse depending on the type of battery. Making nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) releases more CO2 when compared to lithium-ion (Li-ion) because it needs more mass to carry the same energy capacity. Think of NiMH as a big bodybuilder who farts (releasing methane which is terrible for the environment) a lot, while the Li-ion is a lean, non-flatulent vegetarian.

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As per the Swedish Environment Institute, “for each kilowatt-hour storage capacity in the battery, emissions of 150 to 200 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent are generated.” That means Nissan Leaf’s 40 kWh (kilowatt-hour) battery put out 7,000 tons of CO2 emissions during production, and Tesla’s 100 kWh battery released 17,500 tons of CO2.

To put that into perspective, the International Civil Aviation Organization has calculated that the carbon footprint of a single person returning from Stockholm (Sweden) to New York (USA) by plane has just a little over 600 kilograms of CO2 or just 0.66 tons. That Tesla battery is like traveling Stockholm-New York 28,333.

That makes it crucial to only buy a NEV with just the exact battery size for your needs. If you only need something for short drives like work-home, get the small NEV, so you leave as little a carbon footprint as possible.

Different countries, different emissions

All emissions are not equal.

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Countries with zero-carbon nuclear and hydropower will obviously have fewer emissions and have an eco-friendlier manufacturing process. Thailand, which makes some of the vehicles we drive (Hilux, Ranger, Montero Sport, Terra, CR-V, D-Max), gets more than half of its electricity from natural gas, so their production process is just a bit cleaner. It just so happens that they produce so much more vehicles that whatever they save in being cleaner in production is negated by the sheer volume of vehicles they produce and drive.

Nations that use oil and coal will see very high CO2 outputs. Chinese-built vehicles are one of the biggest culprits because it still gets 58% of their power from coal. No wonder smog conditions there are the stuff of legends. Our Editor-in-Chief actually says that at the peak of their pollution, you can look at the sun and not go blind. Such is the level of their pollution, depending on the area.

Vehicles with batteries, whether an EV, FCV, hybrid, or plug-in hybrid, will have to drive more than 100,000 kilometers to make up for what they emitted during production compared to a conventional vehicle. And that’s even if you lived in Costa Rica, which produces 95% of its electricity from renewable sources, which means all EVs there are made using clean energy. So, imagine how far your Shanghai-made NEV needs to go.

How does the Philippines make its electricity?

Let me put it this way. We are not exactly the cleanest and greenest in the region.

The Philippines’ most heavily used energy source is coal. It is a fossil fuel and is the world’s most significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

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42.62% of all our electrical energy demand is satisfied by 32 coal-fired power plants spread across the country. That is quite ironic considering our strategic position along the Ring of Fire. So how much geothermal power do we get? Only about 600 GWh (gigawatt hours), which is just a fraction of our total 106,041 GWh consumption as a country. What is worse, 25 more coal-fired plants will open by 2030 to keep up with domestic energy demand.

That is critical information you need to know before buying a NEV. Remember, these green vehicles are only as good for the planet as the electricity used to charge them. Sure, there are fewer emissions from your tailpipe (or none if you are driving an EV or FCV), but the electricity you drew from the grid from overnight charging will be worse than driving around an entire day with a busted spark plug.

How much CO2 does it cost to charge an EV or PHEV here?

I am glad you asked.

Every 1 kWh your charging cable sucks from the outlet into your EV or PHEV costs the environment 915 grams of CO2 emissions. If you have 1 kWh in your 54-kWh battery, your NEV will only go 6.5 kilometers. That is terrible mileage. It is even worse than driving a Mustang with a 5.0-liter V8 engine which is certified to go 7.9 km/l.

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Hydrogen is a much better source of energy. An FCV needs an average of just 1.6 kilograms of hydrogen to cover 161 kilometers. The downside is the hydrogen needed to power vehicles, heat homes, and provide electricity uses the steam methane reforming process. After desulfurization, reforming, high-temperature shift, and pressure swing absorption, every kilo of hydrogen made releases 9.3 kilos of CO2 emissions. That isn't exactly clean fuel.

Well, don't fossil fuels emit CO2 during production? Yes, they do but a lot less than all of the above. From well to tank, it only takes 720 grams of CO2 to produce one liter of gasoline and 640 grams of CO2 to produce one liter of diesel. When it comes to mileage, each liter of these fuels also takes you much farther. Depending on your vehicle and engine size, expect between 12 to 19 kilometers per liter under combined driving conditions.

What is the right NEV for the PH?

I know that was a lot, but trust me, it took us closer to the answer.

Being environmentally friendly isn’t just about how little CO2 your vehicle emits because the end never justifies the means. It is just as important to know how much CO2 it took to make your NEV and how much more it will take to keep charging its batteries.

Enough with the numbers, examples, and analogies. If you have not deduced it yet, the answer to our question based on all parameters and facts - is a hybrid.

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It has lower manufacturing emissions (compared to EVs, FCVs, and PHEVs), and it does not require charging (which draws electricity from our coal-fired power stations).

Maybe in the future, when improvements in manufacturing make vehicle and battery production more efficient and cleaner, and when we do not rely on coal and fossil fuels so much for energy generation, EVs, FCVs, and PHEVs can truly become clean vehicles.

Bottom line, there is no such thing as an absolutely green car, as each type has certain skeletons in the closet that manufacturers don't want you to see. All things being equal, we would reckon a hybrid is perhaps the “greener” choice in the Philippines, even though you do have to maintain two types of powertrains: an engine driveline and an electric drive system.

At the end of the day, however, what matters more is the driver. Any car can be green, so long as you drive it right.