Acton Institute Powerblog

Plug-In Hybrids Are Not So Green

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The blog Autopia passes along this NYT story outlining some of the fundamental challenges facing plug-in hybrid electric cars. The basic formula for the appeal of such hybrids is as follows: “The electric system runs mostly on coal, natural gas and uranium, all relatively plentiful. Cars run mostly on oil, oil and oil, which lately has been expensive. Wouldn’t it be nice to connect the two?” And as attractive an option as this might be, the NYT story writes that “despite the hopes of policy makers, engineers say there is no prospect of this happening in the near future.”

Coal Burning With Scrubbers

John Gartner is not so pessimistic about the short-term prospects for plug-in hybrids, and concludes, “The competition between the oil companies and electric companies will result in cleaner and more cost-efficient choices for consumers, and that we can all be happy about.”

But here’s the kicker for advocates of plug-in hybrids: The main source of electricity for the United States is fossil fuels, according to the DoE providing “nearly two-thirds of our electricity,” and more than half of that comes from coal. So it isn’t the case that moving from gasoline-powered engines to plug-in hybrids will move us away from the use of fossil fuels. It will, for the most part, simply shift the consumption from oil to coal.

That has some attractive national security implications, since “one quarter of the world’s coal reserves are found within the United States,” as opposed to our need to massively import foreign oil. It is on this basis that Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. argues, “It makes eminent sense to make as rapid a transition to those plug-in hybrids as we can.” This of course assumes that the withdrawal of international trade actually improves rather than worsens the prospects for international peace. Let’s leave that questionable assumption aside for now, which contradicts Bastiat’s observation, “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.”

With respect to the “green-ness” of plug-in hybrids, their environmentally-friendly image belies the fact that such hybrids will to a large extent be running on the energy provided by coal. Until our nation’s electricity comes from renewable and alternative sources of energy, such as nuclear power, the environmental attractiveness of hybrids will remain illusory.

In a previous commentary examining some related aspects of these issues, I ask rhetorically, “Just how many coal-powered SUVs have you seen lately?” Well, if there were plug-in hybrid SUVs, they would to a great extent be coal-powered…and not so green as you might first think.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • kent beuchert

    I agree that plug-ins are highly desirable to remove the constraints and whipsawing that OPEC causes in the oil markets. They are also a big benefit environmentally, regardless of whether their electricity comes from coal fired plants or not, for the simple reason that electricity is a much more efficient energy source than gasoline, which takes quite a lot of energy just to produce from crude. There would be a large net savings of energy and its byproducts like CO2 emissions by switching to electric cars. The NY Times is just plain simpleminded in its arguments, which are based on the incorrect belief that the energy generation at the power plant needed to move a car 5 miles down the road is the same as that provided by gasoline. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  • Matt Leonard

    What the article doesn’t really address – is the realization of off-peak electricity generation. Our grid capacity is essentially rated to meet peak usage, and during off-peak hours there is a huge amount of excess energy being generated and not utilized. Realistically, most people would drive a PHEV during the day and recharge overnight (off-peak). Current estimates suggest that nearly 80 million PHEV’s could be plugged in overnight without adding a SINGLE power plant to our grid infrastructure.

    AND, nearly all advocates for PHEV technology also argue for “Greening the Grid” – meaning moving electricity generation away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources like wind and solar. Residential roof-top solar generation in many regions of the US could provide clean energy to power a personal vehicle easily, in many cases feeding excess back into the grid.

    The original article was very poorly written – seemed like someting a high scool College Republican club might have put out in haste.

  • Simpleminded indeed. This is a complicated problem, as [url=]Popular Mechanics[/url] discovered when looking into alternative energy and cars.

    Lots of things to consider, including the environmental and cost impacts to get coal out of the ground (we haven’t even begun paying the coal mine cleanup bill yet. See for instance [url=]here[/url]). Add also the cost to transport and distribute electricity compared to shipping fuel in tankers over highways or pipeline, the cost and environmental impact of updating utilities infrastructure, the cost of retooling car manufacturing to include hybrid tech, etc. Both have tradeoffs.

    Plug in hybrids still seem like low-hanging fruit. Since most folks already have electricity in the the home (portions of Pennsylvania and West Virginia excepted), it seems like running an extension chord to your hybrid to trickle-charge your Prius the same way folk in Buffalo plug in their block heater in the winter is a small leap. Individuals who have already bought conversion kits to do this will decide whether the added cost to their electric bill offsets savings in their gas bill. That will differ depending on where you live, obviously.

    By the way, I know several folks in Arizona (including the Navy) who were using solar to charge storage cells by day, which were then used to juice their electrics or hybrids by night.

    As the demand goes up for these aftermarket kits and other solutions, I think carmakers will start including them as money-making options the same way they started adding XM/Sirius to the dashboards.

    A little off-topic I know, but the point is I think it will be an individual collection of efforts that drive utilities and carmakers (and perhaps lawmakers) in the direction most favorable to consumers; a fairly libertarian solution if there ever was one.

  • “College Republican club” article? NY Times?


  • It would have been keen of this blogger to also consult published data on the well-to-wheel emissions of PHEVs in relation to the national energy mix, which is 55% coal-powered. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) references a study published by the California Air Resources Board, which indicates that, even on the national grid, battery-electric vehicles generate only ONE-THIRD the greenhouse gas emissions of an equivalent gasoline vehicle. Furthermore, electricity has the potential to get greener with further incorporation (and yes, fight for) renewables. Oil, on the other hand, will only get dirtier as we push further into pristine regions of the Earth to drill and fight wars over a vanishing commodity.

  • It would have been keen >wink< to get a link to the report you meantioned.

  • But hey, no need to rely on one study when more than 30 analyses show that plug-in hybrids are more efficient and pollute less than conventional cars (even hybrids). Yes, even when running on the current mix of the U.S. electrical grid. See an overview of the data on the FAQ page of my website, along with an intro to my new book (due out in 2 weeks!), Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars that Will Recharge America.

  • Boschert – really? Cool. My dad came over on the boat from Holland after WWII. Whence comes your version?

    Checked out your site; lots of good info. Have your publisher send me a copy of the book (email me at and I’ll send you a mailing address) and we’ll review it for you. They can email me the galleys too if that’s easier. I would bet Jordan and some of the other Acton guys would be interested in it as well. If it’s good, I’ll promote it for ya.

  • Stuart Thomson

    What I haven’t been able to find is a W2W type analysis comparing say a PHEV 40 deriving its electricity from a conventional PC plant against diesel or gasoline / petrol derived from coal (gasification + FT conversion). This should be a key consideration in countries which see coal derived liquids as an alternative to oil.