A weekly blog for all things conservation
By: Dan Rhodes, Education Coordinator, Bradford County Conservation District
Across the US and Pennsylvania, passenger car and truck options for residents looking to fuel a new mode of personal transportation have never been more diverse. When the average consumer considers the options available today, certainly the price-tag is a big consideration, both in initial purchase price, and long-term potential repair and maintenance costs. Fuel economy is another big consideration when attempting to determine the long-term costs of purchasing and operating a vehicle. With the recent surge in alternative fuel vehicles such as all electric cars, electric/internal-combustion engine hybrids and clean diesel cars, there are also many options marketed as cleaner and better for the environment than the vehicles of the past. However, by examining the true source of where the energy is coming from to power your vehicle of choice, along with an analysis of driving habits and intended uses of the vehicle, consumers can save themselves lots of money, as well as potentially reduce harmful environmental impacts that can influence human health, water quality, and wildlife.
To compare some of these variables directly between different car models built by the same manufacturer, I’ve included a graph for three different vehicles sold by GM in the model year 2019.
As you can see, if one were factoring in all costs associated with a car including initial purchase price, fuel and maintenance, the cheapest vehicle overall to drive over a ten-year period within these three choices would be the Chevy Spark 4-cylinder gas powered car. Even though annual fuel costs are highest with the gas-powered car in this comparison, it still comes out on top because of its’ much lower initial purchase price and relatively similar annual operating costs.
When the impact of vehicle and fuel consumption choices are applied to the natural resources of the consumer however, things start to get more complicated. The gas-powered car that won the distinction of being the cheapest among all three vehicles to own and drive over a 10-year period, also produced the most CO2 emissions at 7,762lbs per year. If one were so inclined to purchase a vehicle based on the lowest annual CO2 emissions from the tailpipe, an unlikely winner emerges. The diesel-powered car in this comparison, if run on bio-diesel instead of regular diesel fuel, would produce only 1,629Lbs of CO2 a year vs. the electric-car’s 3,341Lbs (US Dept. of Energy vehicle costs calculator).
This being said; carbon is not the only pollutant that a consumer should think about before making decisions on which vehicle to purchase and drive if they are concerned about limiting harmful emissions from their tailpipe. In fact, compared to other energy related pollutants and their impact on human and environmental health, carbon dioxide gas is far down the list. Other, much more toxic pollutants include airborne forms of mercury, arsenic, chromium, sulfur, and NOx that are released into the air when electricity is produced and supplied to the energy grid in PA from coal fired power plants.
Coal rock naturally contains these toxins and they are released into air and water via the coal power plant’s smokestacks when the coal is combusted to make the energy. Although coal has been a cheap, reliable source of energy for PA and other states for well over a century, and it is still valuable as a source of energy to produce electricity across the US, it also impacts vital natural resources like air and water more than any other energy source used to generate electricity today. Coal combustion can also have serious impacts on human health. Toxins released through coal combustion have direct links to annual cases of cancer, heart disease, developmental, reproductive, neurological and respiratory diseases in both humans and wildlife. (Http://www.epa.gov/mats/healthier-americans) (http://pfbc.pa.gov/fishpub/summaryad/sumconsumption.pdf).
Unlike elevated CO2 levels in the atmosphere, which can be mitigated through the planting of trees and decreasing overall fossil fuel consumption, elevated levels of mercury and some other industrial heavy metals are also impossible to eliminate once they get into the soil, water and air because they don’t break down over time. Additionally, the physical amount of substances such as mercury required to negatively affect the health of humans and wildlife are exceedingly small. Only a quarter of a teaspoon of pure mercury, rained down on a 20-acre lake annually is toxic enough to warrant stringent fish consumption advisories to keep people safe and healthy. (Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, “Mercury in the Environment: The Waste Connection,”) Despite better pollution control technologies in recent years, the United States still emits roughly 20 tons of mercury vapor pollution annually into the air due to electricity generation in coal fired plants. (US EPA)
If powered by solar, wind, natural gas, hydro or nuclear power; electric cars certainly have an opportunity to provide people with a relatively cheap, clean, efficient and low impact source of transportation. Regardless of whether a car is powered by electricity, diesel fuel, gasoline, or another fuel though, consumers need to be aware of the real source of the energy used to power their vehicles, appliances, phones, and lights to make informed decisions on the financial and potential environmental impacts of their choices.
Next week’s column will focus on tips and tricks to save you and your family money on home energy costs while helping you protect your natural resources at the same time.
The Bradford County Conservation District is committed to helping people manage resources wisely. You can visit the Bradford County Conservation District at 200 Lake Rd in Wysox across from the Wysox Fire Hall. Contact us at (570) 485-3144 or visit our web page at www.bccdpa.com.
Various staff at the Bradford County Conservation District