What to make of this news from the Eugene, OR Register-Guard?

In a report that’s sure to be controversial, CNW Marketing Research of Bandon concludes… that, even though hybrid cars use less fuel, they require more energy – and are therefore worse for the environment – than conventional cars because their design and manufacture are more complex and the costs of disposal or recycling are higher for their batteries, electric motors and other specialized components. [Emphasis added.]

Hybrids use more energy than regular cars? Is this real, or just pro-SUV propaganda?

Now, just to be clear, I haven’t reviewed the study myself. But the online materials that CNW’s made publicly available seem serious & fair-minded—not like a cheap hit-job on hybrids, but rather a sober analysis that reaches some unexpected and counterintuitive conclusions.

That said, I think there’s very good reason not to take the study too seriously. Not yet—and not until the authors can answer some tough questions about what their study implies.

  • CNW does deserve credit for looking at energy costs over a vehicle’s entire life cycle—not just what it consumes on the road, but also what it costs to manufacture, distribute, repair, and dispose of a car. But some of their numbers seem, to put it mildly, a little hard to believe.

    According to the study’s methods, a Honda Civic (not a hybrid, but a regular model) uses only about 30 percent of its life-cycle energy as gasoline. (See here for the chart.) About 10 percent each go to parts, manufacturing, repair, dissassembly, and replacement; and 20 percent go to other energy costs.

    Let’s say that’s reasonably representative of other models—that is, gasoline accounts for only about 30 percent or thereabouts of the life-cycle energy costs of owning and operating the average car or light truck. But according to the US Energy Information Administration, gasoline consumption accounts for 17 percent of total energy consumption in the US (see here for total consumption, and here for total gasoline). So that would imply that car manufacture, repair, recycling and other energy costs account about 40 percent of the total US energy supply.

    Forty percent? That’s just plain wrong. The entire US industrial sector only consumes 33 percent of the nation’s energy. So the subset devoted to cars has to consume only a fraction of that.

    Just so, it seems downright implausible that cars are responsible for some 57 percent of the nation’s total energy use (17 percent for gasoline, 40 percent for manufacture, repair, recycling, etc.). Cars use a lot of energy, to be sure—but I simply can’t believe it’s that much.

    So that means either: the Honda Civic is a vastly atypical car, and uses substantially more manufacturing energy than most other cars; that I’ve misread the (limited) available data from CNW; or that the study’s authors have some explaining to do if they’re going to convince me that I should pay much attention to their results.