Does driving a car have to cost the earth? (literally)

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Green transport options

Whilst contemplating ways to reduce my carbon footprint, I have been thinking a lot about my car. I currently drive a diesel car with a reasonable MPG. Clearly the most environmentally friendly option would be not to have a car at all. However, I live in a rural location with very little in the way of public transport, I have two very young children and I am required to drive to multiple locations for work (none of which are easily accessible via public transport). Even to my ears this sounds like a list of excuses but this is where my life is at right now. Based on my current circumstances, to stop owning a car, I would probably need to change job and move house. Currently, that feels like too big a change to make. Therefore, I am going to make some changes for now and feel good about that rather than feeling guilty about not getting rid of the car completely. I do have a bike and cycle to some local destinations. I don’t know if my willpower to cycle will hold out in winter when it is cold and dark and icy but over the summer months I have done quite a few journeys by bike that historically I would have done by car.

So the question is, what changes can I make that would be better for the environment whilst still retaining a car? The answer would seem to be an electric vehicle of some sort.

Are electric vehicles better for the environment than conventional cars?

I didn’t know anything about electric vehicles so I have been doing some research. I had a vague idea that I had heard somewhere that whilst emissions from driving an electric vehicle are lower than a conventional car, the emissions during the manufacturing process are higher than a conventional car so over the whole life cycle of the vehicle there isn’t much benefit to the environment in driving an electric vehicle. From what I have read online, it appears that electric vehicles do have a bigger manufacturing footprint than conventional cars. However, whether they are more environmentally friendly or not seems to be about how you source the electricity that you use to power the car when you drive it. If the electricity is generated in a coal fired power station then apparently it is better to just drive a fuel efficient diesel car rather than an electric car. If, however, you source the electricity that you charge the car with from renewable sources such as solar or wind power then even after allowing for the bigger manufacturing footprint then the electric vehicle is better for the environment. I don’t really have any hard scientific evidence to back this up at this stage. This is just based on various articles and websites I have looked at.

So, having decided that I would like to replace my current diesel car with an electric car of some sort, the next question is which type?

Hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric cars – what is the difference?

I was fairly baffled about the various different types of eco-friendly cars on offer. Here is my attempt to give a simple explanation of the key differences based on what I have read online:

HYBRID – uses a petrol or diesel engine like a normal car. However, in addition to this, hybrids also have technology which allows them to store excess power generated by the engine (such as regenerative braking). The excess power is stored in a battery and can then be used to power the vehicle for short distances making it more fuel efficient than a standard diesel/petrol car. The range that a hybrid vehicle can travel on electricity alone is fairly low (1 or 2 miles only).

ELECTRIC VEHICLE – as the name suggests these vehicles run solely on electricity. More room for batteries (no combustion engine) means they generally have a much longer driving range than a hybrid (when using electricity alone) but still a much shorter range than a standard diesel/petrol car.

PLUG-IN HYBRID – this is basically a cross between an electric vehicle and a hybrid. It has an electric motor and a combustion engine. This gives you the option to plug it in and charge it with electricity or alternatively to put petrol in it, or both. The vehicle can run solely on either of these power sources or a combination of the two. The electric motor usually has a range of about 20-30 miles between charges. The combustion engine gives a much longer driving range in addition to the electric-only range.

The amount of petrol/diesel consumed by a standard hybrid is likely to be higher than a plug in electric vehicle (depending on the distances driven etc). Therefore potentially a plug in hybrid can be better for the environment than a standard hybrid if driven in the right way.

One of the major disadvantages of electric vehicles when compared with traditional diesel/petrol vehicles appears to be the time it takes to recharge the batteries which is why a hybrid is attractive. Imagine if you want to drive from London to Scotland (about 400 miles) in an electric vehicle which has a range of say 100 miles. This would potentially require a lot of stops to recharge the batteries and also assumes that there are electric vehicle charging stations at appropriate points along the journey. The benefit of the plug in hybrid is that it has say a 30 mile range on fully electric power plus an additional 200-300 miles using the petrol engine so it can be environmentally friendly on short journeys but gives you the option to cover longer distances when needed without having to stop to charge up.

Part of the decision regarding what type of vehicle is best for the environment is about what type of journeys you make. So the theory behind the plug-in hybrid is that a range of 30 miles would cover the average person’s daily commute. So assuming the majority of travel is local then a plug-in hybrid is good for the environment. If however, you do a lot of longer journeys which would require regular use of the hybrid’s petrol engine then a standard diesel engine with good fuel economy would probably be better for the environment.

I am by no means an expert on this so I apologise if any of the above is inaccurate (please comment and let me know if any corrections are needed). This is just my simplistic, non-technical understanding of the options.

Decisions, decisions…

So the outcome of all of this is that I have just ordered a plug-in hybrid car!

I am getting the car through my employer as this works out as a very good deal for me given that the benefit in kind on electric/hybrid cars is relatively low (5% of the list price of the car for the tax year 2015-16). There is also currently a £5k government grant on the purchase of new electric/hybrid vehicles although from what I can gather this is due to be replaced by a tiered scheme in 2016.

I am actually really excited at the prospect of doing something which will hopefully be a step in the right direction to reducing my carbon footprint (OK and I am excited at the prospect of getting a new car!) I realise it probably won’t impact global climate change in any significant way but it is a small step in the right direction. The car is not going to arrive until November time so I have a little while to wait yet.

In the meantime, I am also going to think about reducing the number of journeys I make, where I travel to and whether I really need to go at all. I can also look at using public transport more often or cycling instead of driving. I think the key to being green is going to be keeping journeys to within the electric powered range of the car. I am also going to think about my driving style more which is another way of conserving energy.

Long term, I would like to think that we could become a one car household (we currently have two vehicles) or even at some point a household with no car at all. Something I would like to look into at some point would also be setting up a car sharing scheme with other people who live nearby.

So, there is still a lot to do and many areas of my life that I need to take a look at in terms of how I can reduce my carbon footprint further but this feels like a small step in the right direction.

 

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