Hybrids offer way to ease bay pollution

ON THE BAY

Technology: The new gasoline-electric vehicles emit less nitrogen, and that can lead to cleaner air and water.

December 10, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

SAVING THE BAY is about to get a little easier. I'm talking about the imminent explosion of less-polluting, higher mileage gasoline-electric hybrid passenger vehicles coming to market.

Hybrids can significantly improve air quality and water quality. For example, the one I drive, Toyota's mid-size Prius (look for my Bay plate: KICKGAS), emits about one-tenth the nitrogen of a typical late-model vehicle.

That's big - or it would be if lots of us drove them. Nitrogen's a key ingredient in smog, and the bay's biggest pollutant.

About a third of all nitrogen entering the bay - more than from sewage - comes from airborne fallout. And vehicle exhausts are one of the two dominant sources of it. (Power plants are the other.)

There are few other personal choices we make that have a greater impact on our environment than buying a car. It's irresponsible to buy a bigger, more polluting vehicle than you need.

To date, hybrids have been a drop-in-the-bucket alternative, with about 40,000 sold nationwide in 2003, mostly Priuses and Honda's hybrid Civic. But 2004 will see sales hit more than 60,000, and estimates of hybrid sales by the end of the decade range from half a million to more than a million.

What's happening is that every carmaker is now playing catch up, putting hybrid technology in a wide variety of models.

Detroit finally went hybrid this year with Ford's small sport utility vehicle, the Escape, which like the Prius and Civic has state of the art nitrogen controls. These very cleanest models guarantee their emissions controls won't degrade in performance for 10 years or 150,000 miles.

The 2005 model year will see hybrid Acuras, Dodge and Toyota minivans, Toyota's Camry, Honda's Accord, one Mercedes model, and large SUVs from Toyota (Highlander) and Lexus.

These will be joined in 2006 by BMW, more minivans and, in 2007 by the truly giant SUVs like Chevy's Tahoe and GMC's Yukon. Can the hybrid Hummer be far off?

Indeed, the possibility of outsized SUVs with hybrid technology - somewhat greener but still relative guzzlers and polluters - is one reason not to celebrate clear skies just yet.

It's clear automakers still march to the tune, borne out in polls of the driving public, that speed and size sell better than fuel economy and ultra-low pollution.

"HAUL ASS AND SAVE GAS," reads the headline on Car and Driver magazine's recent review of Honda's new, hybrid Accord (in showrooms today).

The hybrid Accord, featuring a V-6 gasoline engine, will do zero to 60 in a snappy 6.5 seconds, and still get 32-33 mpg in mixed driving. Its emissions, while cleaner than most cars, don't match the best hybrids nor does its mileage come close to the 44-50 mpg I get.

Some environmental groups have criticized Honda for not building the Accord hybrid on their perfectly adequate four cylinder. But performance sells.

"You can't fault Honda for targeting a certain market, and I'm not sure it's so bad," says James Kliesch of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Kliesch does the council's annual Green Book, a top-notch ratings guide of all passenger vehicles' environmental performance.

Up to a point, he sees even less than ideal hybrids as "putting the technology in more and more hands and bringing the costs of production down."

He's less impressed with the so-called "mild hybrids" Detroit is introducing in some of its big pickups and SUVs. These use electric-gas combos to boost mileage marginally, but mainly to supply lots of auxiliary power for activities like tailgating.

Big hybrids don't have to be so-so environmentally. Kliesch says that high miles per gallon doesn't relate directly to clean tailpipes, or vice versa. He says Toyota's big SUV hybrid, the Highlander model, will be rated very close to state of the art in low tailpipe emissions.

"A hot-fudge sundae without the guilt," a Toyota publicist says.

There's no free lunch of course. Emissions of carbon dioxide, the key factor in global warming, do increase directly as a vehicle burns more gas. No tailpipe technology currently captures CO2.

Also, increasing numbers of people, each one driving more miles every year, have been offsetting cleaner tailpipe impacts for years; and around the bay there's no end in sight to either.

No doubt the coming boom in hybrids will help our bay and our air. But whether it's a big help or a small one depends a lot on how well we employ this exciting new technology.

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