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February 08, 2006


Lance Funston

Excellent article Joel.

Think about this...

I passed on the optional heated leather seats the dealer was getting ready to put in my Prius when I bought it.

I saved $3000. Essentially the cost of the hybrid system. Americans will spend thousands on seats, navigation, sound systems, and the ability to gloat over others by being seen in a car with a high-end mark like M-B or Lexus.

When GM offers a 20% fuel-effiency, GHG reduction on its Saturn Vue for another $1200, "greenwash" is the cry. When people get underwhelmed with 27mpg, they need to remember, most passenger cars get between 22-24mpg in the real world and SUVs closer to 16 to 18 mpg but the EPA's outdated test hides this.

"My (2004) Passat gets 30 mpg in the city" bragged one of my co-workers (no, its not a diesel). "If you push it off a cliff maybe" I responded.

GM's real problem is not just playing catch up ball... It's the way they are strategically dealing with Sustainable Mobility based on their history and culture.

Mike G.

Am I reading this wrong. You say it takes more energy to produce a gallon of gas than you get out of that gallon of gas. Then how are we producing more gas? What am I missing. Seems we would very quickly run out of fuel to make more fuel.

Jason Graham-Nye

Well written Joel. It was getting depressing there for a while. For every innovation, a naysayer... Enough already! The species is making incremental gains in the right direction.


A timely post from my point of view. I may be investing in some sort of motor vehicle in the near future. Think I may go for the Smart. It's not electric, or even hybrid, but the fuel economy is amazing and it's so small you can park it just about anywhere.

Joh Hardy

Very perceptive. Demonising people taking trembling steps in the right direction just because they aren't running doesn't help.

We need to be both GRACIOUS (kind and gentle, maybe beyond what is deserved) and at the same time TRUTHFUL (no mealy-mouthed compromises about where we need eventually to go). It is a difficult balance, but we need to try if we are going to make a difference rather than merely polarise.

Arno Harris

Great article, Joel. I'm really glad to see someone take on some of the mistakes made in disucssing the net-energy issue with ethanol.

The Energy & Resources Group at UCB's Goldman School recently published a very rigorous study-of-studies on net-energy values for various fuel types. The study is a great primer for anyone new to these issues looking for some real scientific methodology to cut through the fog of misinformation. It also is a perfect rebuttal to the oft-cited Pimental "conclusion" that ethanol delivers negative net-energy. A PDF of the paper they published in Science is here:

They also published all of their models and sources online:



Arno Harris

Bart Anderson

I agree with your comments about hybrids.

Ethanol is a different story. I've been following the subject for a while, and there are many serious objections to the process - especially with corn as the input. I'm underwhelmed by the studies cited; numbers are thrown about that mean very little.

There's certainly not enough evidence to justify spending all the money that is proposed.

My impression is that corn-based ethanol is subsidizing an inefficient process, making us think that we're solving a problem when we're just digging ourselves deeper.

Eric Slosberg

You are assuming that ethanol must be made from corn. Ethanol can be made much more efficiently from switchgrass, a native grass varieties of which grow from Canada to The Gulf of Mexico. It requires minimal fertilizer. And the whole plant is utilized rather than just the seed.

Bart Anderson

Thanks for mentioning switchgrass, Eric. Yes, it looks better than corn. But ...

- Right now in the US, the plans are for corn-based ethanol. Switchgrass is still in the study stage.

- An less obvious problem, not much discussed, is the effect on the land. Industrial agriculture is pretty hard on the soil as it is - erosion, compaction, infertility. Consider how much land will be needed to satisfy the tremendous demand for auto fuels. And the problems will be much worse in China, with their growing automotive fleet and their amazingly high rates of erosion.

- What will be the effect on the price of food? Already, sugar prices are rising as a result of crops being diverted from food to fuel.

What's surprising to me is how we can jump into such an expensive, complicated change on the basis of such little knowledge.

BTW, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) just issued a Tip Sheet listing some of the issues and studies for ethanol.

Bart Anderson

URL for the SEJ tipsheet on ethanol:

Gil Friend

Excellent post, Joel.

I understand why some "perfect is the enemy of the good" environmentalists might find fault with any improvement, but why these journo's? Is fault-finding as embedded in their bones too?

My Ask the Experts column at Joel's GreenBiz.com (sorry, the links won't hold) recently addressed some of these tradeoff questions.

Gil Friend

Let's try it this way:
Ask the Experts:
Old vs. New Cars: The Environmental Tradeoffs


I think consumers are discovering that they aren't saving as much money with the hybrids that they thought they would according to all the hype they heard. It doesn't mean the technology is bad, but it does need to be improved.

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