How Plug-in Hybrid Cars Reduce Dependence on Fossil Energy – Some Real Data – Part II

Advancing Sustainable Transportation.

1.0 Introduction.
Part I of this series provided some real data that illustrated how a plug-in hybrid vehicle can indeed reduce our dependence on fossil energy (e.g. oil and coal) – using technology available today. Part I illustrated how it is possible to put together a personal solar PV “system” that allows one to harvest sunlight shining on our roof to generate electrical power. By becoming a sun farmer and harvesting this sunlight, it is possible to generate one’s electrical power needs without the need to burn coal – without dumping CO2, mercury, coal ash and other unhealthy materials into our common atmosphere. Using this self-generated electrical power, it is then possible to heat and cool one’s home using a GeoExchange Heat Pump furnace (that replaces the typical natural gas furnace) – without burning any natural gas – without adding more CO2 to our atmosphere.

Using this self-generated electrical power, it is possible to store sufficient energy in today’s plug-in hybrid vehicle electrical tank (battery) for most daily transportation.
In our specific case, over the period of about a month (788 miles), we were able to reduce our dependence on oil to 0.7 gallons of gasoline by using the plug-in hybrid. Yes, we were driving a solar powered car.   Had we used our “other car” (a traditional internal combustion vehicle), we would have consumed 37.5 gallons of gasoline – that’s a 98% reduction in oil dependency. (Not to mention the fact that this sun farming “system” reduced our coal and natural gas dependency for our home by 100 %.)
The question remains, “Does the Plug-in Hybrid Advance Sustainable Transportation?”

In this segment, Part II, we will explore the use of a plug-in hybrid vehicle in more detail to begin to evaluate if it helps promote/advance sustainable transportation. Even though we have established a plug-in hybrid can reduce our dependency on oil relative to a standard gasoline car – by as much as 98% for local driving, we still have a long way to go before we can claim such a vehicle provides a sustainable/clean form of transportation.
Why? Because we have “externalized” (i.e. ignored) so many costs associated with our market items.
How could this happen? Because today’s economic models have not been updated to reflect today’s consciousness of additional factors that must be considered if 7 billion humans are to live sustainably on this finite planet .
So what new costs have been identified? What are we aware of today, that we weren’t conscious of several hundred years ago?   A few of these topics are discussed in the next section.
3.0 Unsustainable Externalized (Ignored) Costs of Transportation.
There are many ignored/externalized costs of transportation that are not being acknowledged by the oil and gas industry or by the auto industry or by the traditional economic community. We will mention only two of these ignored costs that relate specifically to the plug-in hybrid vehicle.
1) Externalized Cost #1. Consequences of Burning Gasoline. Even though the plug-in hybrid does use clean electrical power, it also will burn gasoline. There are hidden/ignored costs associated with burning gasoline.

a. We know when we burn gasoline, the combustion products ( the exhaust) of all engines (and electrical power generating plants) that burn hydrocarbons includes carbon dioxide (CO2) – a known green house gas that alters the earth’s heat balance with the sun and contributes to global climate change.

i. Because we keep accurate records on the consumption of coal, oil, natural gas, etc., it is a known fact that we 7 billion humans are now dumping over 33.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. (1)
ii. Simple high school chemistry tells us that every gallon of gasoline burned in a car dumps 20 lbs of CO2 into the atmosphere.
iii. Yes, the rest of the world knows that we Americans (who make up 5% of the global family) are responsible for 25% of this CO2 as well as other atmospheric pollutants (e.g. NOx, methane, benzene, etc.)(2)
iv. Because humans are dumping CO2 into the common global atmosphere faster than nature can remove it, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 continues to increase thereby trapping more of the Sun’s heat in the atmosphere. We are now observing a slow warming of our global atmosphere. With a slightly warmer (and therefore moisture laden) atmosphere today, circulation patterns of the atmosphere are becoming more energetic. See for a clear discussion.
v. This slightly warmer, energetic atmosphere can be linked to more extreme local weather events. It has become “normal” to learn on the nightly news that yet another 50-100 year old weather record was broken. Weather extremes include increased incidence and intensity of tornados, hurricanes, and derechos that in turn are causing increases in property damage, and loss of life. These are examples of ignored / externalized costs that can be linked to burning hydrocarbons (oil, coal, natural gas, tars sands oil, shale oil, as well as all biomass – including ethanol, wood, dung – as well as municipal waste.) There is an externalized cost of burning any material containing carbon – burning carbon produces CO2 .
vi. This slightly warmer atmosphere can also be linked to gradual melting of polar ice and the subsequent rise in sea level – with resulting loss in coastal property and soon entire ocean islands. These are further examples of externalized costs of burning hydrocarbons.

b. We know these ignored costs of burning gasoline (and other hydrocarbon fuels) for transportation can be eliminated with zero carbon emission vehicles (such as an electric vehicle). These externalized costs can be minimized with current plug-in hybrid vehicle. Future plug-in hybrids that burn hydrogen could also eliminate these costs.


2) Externalized Cost #2. Replacement Cost of Consumed Non-Renewable Energy. In a sustainable society, humans will no longer live off reserves of Ancient Sunlight (coal, oil, natural gas, tar sands oil, shale oil). (3) Why not? There are two possible reasons. 1) Because there will be none left or 2) Because humans will have wisely transitioned to renewable energy sources before completely burning all of these ancient non-renewable reserves.

So the transition away from fossil energy is inevitable. Because it is inevitable, because there are viable renewable alternatives to coal, oil, natural gas, etc. available today despite what the oil and gas corporations lead us to believe, because further consumption of these ancient reserves of energy weakens the ability of future generations of humans to live on this planet, knowing what we know the continued consumption / burning of these precious ancient resources is immoral. The moral/right thing for our generation to do is to transition away from fossil energy as soon as possible – now. It is unconscionable to wait until the next to last lump of coal is about to be dug from the earth, the next to the last drop of oil is about to be extracted from the earth, the next to the last cubic foot of natural gas is about to be “fracked” from its mile deep home in shale before changing our current fossil burning behavior.

In a sustainable society, each adult individual takes responsibility for “harvesting” the energy (from renewable sources) they (and their dependents) need to live their life style.

Knowing this, as a buyer / owner of a new transportation vehicle today, I must take responsibility for providing the energy required to manufacture, operate and recycle the vehicle I use for transportation, as well as the energy required to build and maintain the infrastructure used by the vehicle. Here’s a brief tally of this energy.

a. Energy is required to manufacture an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle (just like any standard vehicle).

i. Currently, fossil energy is consumed to extract resources from the earth and shape these materials into the various parts used to assemble a plug-in hybrid vehicle. Someday manufacturing facilities must be powered by renewable energy sources (solar electric, wind generated electric, etc.), but they are not today.
ii. In a sustainable society, as the buyer / owner of a plug-in hybrid vehicle, I must take responsibility for the consumption of energy required to manufacture the vehicle. To offset this consumption of fossil energy, I need to harvest an equal amount of renewable energy. As indicated in the Table below, I could add 12 more solar PV panels on the roof and harvest sunlight for 10 years for this offset.
To be a responsible adult, I must add 12 more solar PV panels on the roof and harvest sunlight for 10 years to offset the energy required to manufacture this plug-in hybrid.


b. Energy is required to operate the plug-in hybrid. The amount of energy required is dependent on which mode the car is operated in: electric or gasoline. Let’s assume I drive the car for 10,000 miles a year for 10 years (100,000 miles).

i. If I operate the vehicle in the electric mode only (the most economical mode), I could add 11 solar PV panels and harvest enough sunlight for all my transportation needs for 10 years.
ii. If I operate the vehicle predominately in the gasoline mode, I would need to add 30 solar PV panels to my roof to offset the amount of fossil energy consumed during those 10 years.
iii. If I operate the car in both modes – say 50% electric and 50 % gasoline – I would need to have 20 solar PV panels to offset my transportation needs.
To be a responsible adult, I must allocate 20 solar PV panels on the roof to transportation and harvest sunlight for 10 years to offset the energy required to operate this plug-in hybrid on 50% electric and 50% gasoline.


c. Energy is required to recycle the vehicle after its useful life.

In a sustainable society, humans can not “consume” any material resources. They do borrow material resources, BUT every atom of earth’s elemental materials (iron, copper, etc., ) extracted from the earth is returned to the commons for further use by others. Every member of a sustainable society borrows & returns rather than consumes. Fortunately iron, copper, etc. atoms do not wear out and can be recycled indefinitely – unless careless unconscious humans fail to return what they borrowed or callously discard these materials in dumps / landfills or throw these materials overboard to be lost in the bottom of the ocean.

In a sustainable social order, after 10-15 years of use, this plug-in hybrid vehicle must be 100% recycled – every atom. 100% recycling requires human labor to disassembly the vehicle into its various parts. These parts are then sorted into like-types of materials so that they can be reprocessed into new parts – using renewable energy. This approach is often referred to as the “cradle to cradle” process. An old product becomes the direct input for new products – with no loss of materials. There is no data available at this time to define what this labor and energy cost is.
Our current method of recycling vehicles is primitive at best (crush, shred, sort out pieces of ferric materials with electromagnets, recycle plastics as a composite, etc. – much is lost in the process).

d. Energy is required to build and maintain the infrastructure required to operate my vehicle. Someday (within the next 100-150 years) there will be no more fossil energy available to build roads, bridges, refueling stations, etc. Hopefully homo sapiens will have made the transition to renewable energy sources long before then. At this point, I have not found data that defines how much “infrastructure” energy is apportioned to each vehicle owner.


6.0 Conclusion:
So, does the plug-in hybrid advance clean sustainable transportation? Is driving a plug-in hybrid vehicle a step in the direction of more sustainable living?
It appears the answer is Yes and No.
Yes! Operating a plug-in hybrid is a small step in the right direction. In a sustainable future, humans will no longer be burning gasoline or any other fossil fuel for transportation. A plug-in hybrid begins that transition from standard gasoline burning cars and can provide a significant reduction in our dependency on oil (petroleum).
Yes! In our specific case, for local driving, we had a 98% reduction in the use of gasoline. Because we can generate our own electrical power to operate the plug-in hybrid from solar energy using the photovoltaic panels on the garage roof, we do not need to ask the utility company to burn coal to make electricity to power our plug-in hybrid vehicle. The vehicle is “solar powered” for all local driving.
No! For day trips longer than 50 miles, our specific plug-in hybrid (Chevrolet Volt) burns gasoline just like a standard car and does not provide sustainable long-distance transportation.

Note: German auto makers have successfully manufactured and tested plug-in hybrids that burn hydrogen rather than gasoline or diesel. The hydrogen is derived from water using the well known electrolysis process. The electrical energy for this process is derived from solar PV panels. This version of a plug-in hybrid vehicle does provide sustainable transportation for local as well as long-distance travel (assuming the infrastructure for hydrogen filling stations is in place).

No! Manufacturing a plug-in hybrid today requires the consumption of fossil energy just like any standard car. To offset this externalized energy cost, I plan to add 11 solar PV panels to the roof and harvest an equivalent amount of renewable energy.

BUT, there is a problem.   We already have the maximum number of panels allowed by our for-profit “regulated” utility company, Xcel Energy under their Solar Rewards program (based on legislation they helped write).  The Solar Rewards program is totally funded by a 2% surtax paid by Xcel customers to promote renewable energy. The Colorado legislation that requires Xcel to accommodate our residential solar PV systems on the grid, now clearly places a limit on the amount of electrical power a homeowner can generate and be eligible for the renewable energy incentives (i.e. a limit on the number of panels a homeowner can install under the “rewards” program).  The upper limit is currently capped at 120% of one’s last year’s electrical usage.

So if I want to harvest some additional sunlight to pay off my existing fossil energy debt for the manufacturing processes used to make the plug-in hybrid I just bought, I am not eligible for any further financial assistance.   If I want to harvest some additional sunlight to offset the fossil energy I plan to burn in the plug-in hybrid as gasoline, that is not allowed under the “rewards” program either.

So the real data indicates that a part of trying to live sustainably is  a struggle against the existing human created social  system, not so much today’s technical alternatives.   We humans created this social system and we humans can therefore change it (with some effort and intentionality).   This struggle is not a blame game.  Blaming simply delegates responsibility for change to someone else.   In a Democracy, change requires a majority of like-minded people.  That’s why I am sharing my message in this blog.   We’d be happy to hear your perspective.


Appendix: Explanation of Notes
(1) The source of this information is the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), which is located at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The CDIAC is the primary climate-change data and information analysis center of the US Department of Energy (DOE). See:
(2) Recent studies by Howarth’s team at Cornell University, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Climatic Change Letters, indicate that on a 20-year time horizon “the Green House Gas (GHG) footprint for shale gas (natural gas derived from shale by fracking) is at least 20% greater than and perhaps more than twice as great as that for coal when expressed per quantity of energy available (e.g. per BTU) during combustion.” See For a debunking of the myth that natural gas is “clean” see
(3) Fossil energy is also referred to as Ancient Sunlight to denote its origin dating back to the Carboniferous Era some 400 million years ago when there was a larger amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. During a period of around 70 million years, photosynthetic plants converted a portion of the Sun’s incident energy (sunlight) into chemical energy and stored it as biomass. This was subsequently transformed into the various forms of hydrocarbon materials we currently call fossil energy (coal, oil, natural gas, tars sands, and oil shale). Today homo sapiens see these evolved hydrocarbon materials as “fuel” to be burned to make heat. Because we currently perceive this one-time-only-supply of black stuff as an easy energy fix to burn in slave engines, we refer to it as “fossil fuel” – ignoring the fact that its usefulness far exceeds that of fuel. We ignore that the burning process returns the carbon to the atmosphere (in the form of carbon dioxide, etc.) where it resumes its role as a “greenhouse gas.”
To be perfectly clear, ANY use of Ancient Sunlight is unsustainable. If we humans were fully conscious, we would only use Ancient Sunlight so as not to have to use Ancient Sunlight. For example, using Ancient Sunlight to make a wind turbine that generates electrical power from wind energy might be a conscientious use of this one-time-only reserve.    An excellent easy-to-read reference on this topic is “The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight,” by Thom Hartmann.
Future generations will look at our current behavior and call this brief period of history “The Great Burning.” Future generations will wonder how we supposedly intelligent beings of the 19th and 20th and 21st centuries could so callously consume/burn these evolved, high energy state materials and simply reduce them to ash and low energy state combustion products such as water and CO2 – just to extract a small fraction of their energy as low quality heat.
(4) We all are aware that the price of gasoline does not reflect “externalized costs” meaning costs that are conveniently ignored by the oil and gas industry – costs that are passed along to the consumer externally (over and above the cost per gallon we pay at the pump). We know that the oil drilling and extraction process vents methane (a green house gas) into our common atmosphere; we know that when the extracted oil is refined into fuels (diesel, gasoline, etc.) and burned, the combustion products include CO2 (another green house gas) that contributes to climate change; we know that wells leak, and tankers break apart causing oil to be released thereby contaminating our common water supplies and our land. All 7 billion humans are incurring these additional oil-related costs associated with climate change (loss of live and property due to extreme weather patterns that are becoming a new normal; rising sea levels resulting from observed glacial ice melting in the mountains and arctic regions; alteration of livable habitats and extinction of living species daily; etc.)
(5) CO2 levels in the atmosphere are currently above 380 parts per million and climbing. Although climate change is a complex phenomenon, the vast majority of knowledgeable atmospheric scientists around the world agree that we 7 billion humans are altering the heat balance of our planet. The United Nations has convened another world conference on Sustainable Development to address this issue. The conference, RIO+20, is being held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 20-22, 2012. A similar conference was held in Rio 20 years ago when unsustainable human behavior was first being identified as a threat to the future of civilization.
(6) When a car engine burns 1 gallon of gas (6.3 lbs) , it exhausts 20 lbs of CO2 into the atmosphere. For comparison, an adult human breathes out about 40-60 lbs of CO2 per month (
(7) This topic is rarely even discussed. Extracting energy from the earth and not replacing it with like kind is unsustainable human behavior. Because we continue this unsustainable behavior knowingly, it is unethical – even immoral with regard to all future generations of humans who will live on this planet without the benefit of these energy reserves. There are still many people who choose to use a worldview where all resources are viewed as infinite in quantity. As a result, they believe earth’s fossil energy resources will last “forever” or at least through their lifetimes. As a result, these people assume no responsibility for living sustainably now – so that future generations of humans can live on this planet for millions of years.
(8) Assumes that one gallon of gasoline provides 114,000-125,000 BTUs of energy depending on the specific grade/blend. We assume an average of 120,000 BTU / gallon.
We also know that the oil refinery process to produce burnable fuels is not performed using the principles of zero discharge – as a result toxic materials are dumped into our common atmosphere and water supplies (legally and illegally). Even in small quantities, these toxic materials have a detrimental effect on all human and non-human life. All 7 billion humans are incurring these additional costs associated with oil-related contamination of our planet – we pay these externalized (ignored) costs as additional health care in response to birth defects, cancer, asthma, etc.
We also know that oil / gasoline is a finite resource. We are past peak oil – meaning each day we consume more than we discover as additional reserve yet to be extracted – hence we know we are now headed downward toward the complete depletion of petroleum reserves on our planet. By comparing the known remaining reserves with the current consumption rate, we find that within 100 years (some calculate 75 years) there will be negligible petroleum left to burn.
(9) Energy required to manufacture a car is estimated to be 31,362 Btu per pound. That’s the average energy cost for constructing a modern motor vehicle —rubber, fluids, glass, metal and battery. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Lab has attempted to analyze the energy consumed in manufacturing vehicles. Their analysis tool is called Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy use in Transportation models (GREET).
(10) Operating this vehicle solely on electric power for 10 years and driving 100,000 miles would require 11 PV panels harvesting sunlight for those 10 years.

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