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Hybrids and Cleaner Vehicles: No Good Car Goes Unpunished

02/10/2006 01:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week, Wall Street Journal columnist Joseph White opined that "hybrid mania is about over," noting that some consumers apparently are deciding that these energy-efficient vehicles aren't, as it turns out, the greatest things since the horseless carriage. On the same day, over at the New York Times, environmental writer Matthew Wald seemed eager to put a damper on the growing interest in ethanol as an alternative fuel by pointing out that -- surprise! -- it takes energy to make energy. And with unflinching predictability, the environmental blogging crowd adopts an indignant "get real!" stance toward any car or auto company effort that isn't -- well, Toyota's Prius.

So much for kicking our addiction to oil.

When it comes to finding alternative solutions to America's long love affair with Middle East oil, it seems that no good deed goes unpunished. After years of berating the auto industry for dragging their collective heels on producing energy-efficient and alternative-energy vehicles, there seems to be precious little tolerance for anything short of perfection. True, time is short and the list of environmental, health, and global security problems associated with our unabated petroleum use is depressingly long. But getting from here to there isn't easy. There's no single, silver-bullet solution but rather -- and refreshingly -- an increasingly diverse menu of options: competing technologies, fuels, and vehicle choices.

So, why shoot down anything that isn't Nirvana?

I won't attempt to answer that question, except to note that auto makers -- especially American ones -- have teased us in the past with "green" solutions, only to pull the plug, as it were, on such technologies -- GM's EV-1 electric car, for example, or Ford's Think! line of vehicles. Not to mention most car companies' historically dogged refusal to acknowledge or address energy and climate issues in any strategic, holistic way. So, healthy skepticism is in order.

But it's hard to dismiss the fact that the landscape has shifted. Nearly every major auto company has either introduced a hybrid model or plans to do so in the next two years. GM, Ford, and others are touting "flex-fuel" vehicles capable of running on standard gasoline or on E85, a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline (or on any combination thereof). Cleaner-burning diesel engines are forecast for the American market. The blogs I track -- GreenCarCongress, HybridCars.com, evWorld, Biodieselblog, and others -- are chock full of daily stories of technological advancements, product introductions, company acquisitions, and market research data documenting the nascent but growing industry interest in environmentally friendly transportation. At this week's Chicago Auto Show, from where this is being written, hybrids and flex-fuel vehicles are front and center.

So, why take potshots?

It's one thing when an environmental activist posts a knee-jerk reaction to some car company's initiative. That's to be expected. (In this blog post, however, the writer curiously cites an overwhelming demand for a GM T-shirt promoting E85 as "proof" that the company is merely attempting to "greenwash its ethanol efforts" in light of its "monumental financial woes.") I get the style: it's purposefully venomous. After all, what's a campaign without a villain? But I'm unclear what the "campaign" is in this case. Can only financially strong companies do green things? Can only small, fuel-efficient cars adopt alternative technologies?

It's another thing altogether when mainstream journalists, in their seemingly insatiable need to create controversy under the guise of "balanced reporting," pull together facts into a story line that doesn't make sense. In the case of the New York Times' Wald -- a veteran and highly respected reporter -- he begins his recent look at corn-based ethanol by extolling its virtues -- "a clean-burning, high-octane fuel that could end any worldwide oil shortage, reduce emissions that cause global warming, and free the United States from dependence on foreign energy." But then, he adds:

There is only one catch: Turning corn into ethanol takes energy. For every gallon that an ethanol manufacturing plant produces, it uses the equivalent of almost two-fifths of a gallon of fuel (usually natural gas), and that does not count the fuel needed to make fertilizer for the corn, run the farm machinery or truck the ethanol to market.

Unlike oil, of course, which comes out of the ground, ready for use in our gas tanks, delivered to our neighborhoods -- all energy-free.

Seriously, Wald has stated a fact but missed the point. All fuels require energy -- usually oil and natural gas -- to acquire, refine, and bring to market. And studies show that the "net energy balance" -- the amount of energy it takes to produce a gallon of fuel compared to the energy that gallon produces in vehicles -- makes ethanol and other biofuels superior choices. For example, according to a U.S. Agriculture Department study, the net energy balance for gasoline is a 19.5% loss, whereas ethanol made from corn is a 34% gain. That is, producing a gallon of gas uses more energy than that gallon produces, while a gallon of ethanol produces more energy than it took to make it.

And it's unlikely that the oil calculations include the vast sums of energy used to wage wars simply to keep oil flowing. Meanwhile, researchers are actively looking for ways to make ethanol from far less energy-intensive plants and waste products.

So much for the "catch" about ethanol.

That's not the end of it. Another same-day Times piece by auto writer David Leonhardt notes that selling hybrids allows car companies to make more gas-guzzlers, since federal laws mandate manufacturers' average fuel economy. Technically true, but that's a pretty cynical view of why hybrids are being marketed. And it doesn't explain these cars' phenomenal growth rate by enthusiastic buyers.

And then there's the Wall Street Journal's case that the bloom is off the hybrid rose. The proof: Honda is re-launching its Accord Hybrid, which met with underwhelming success its first time out due to its high price and substandard performance. Honda, somehow having missed the news that hybrids are no longer selling, at least according to the Journal, has seen fit to re-introduce a new and improved hybrid Accord nonetheless.

And so it goes. The steady drumbeat of negative stories about positive developments creates a drag on innovation and does little to embolden automakers to continue their efforts, never mind ramping them up or taking on even more daring feats. (Who, for example, will see fit to introduce a flex-fuel plug-in hybrid, capable of getting many hundreds of miles per gallon of oil?)

I'm not suggesting for a second that we accept, blindly and indiscriminately, everything green that car companies put before us. And I'm not saying we should be thankful for small measures, halfheartedly executed or marketed. Auto makers need to be prodded, even forced, to accelerate the clean revolution. And it will take a village -- including policymakers, protestors, activist shareholders, opinion leaders, and environmental bloggers -- to get them moving in the right direction. But car companies also need encouragement and support, even when their efforts fall short by some measures. To simply dismiss all good-faith efforts as inadequate is a classic case of making perfection the enemy of the good.

The road to clean-car future will be bumpy, with plenty of false starts, roadblocks, wrong turns, and dead ends. It will be a longer, more circuitous journey than anyone cares to take.

But the alternative is paralysis, to stay stuck where we are. And where we are today isn't anywhere we want to remain.