Earth Island Institute logo, tap or click to visit the Institute home page

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Winter 2013 > +/-


Car Talk

What’s the Greenest Way to Go?

+/-On one issue, at least, American environmentalists are mostly in agreement: It would be wonderful to have walkable, bikable, mass transit-oriented towns and cities in which you wouldn’t need to have a car. But such a vision remains a work in progress. For most families in the United States, a personal automobile is a necessity. So, if you have to buy a car, what’s the greenest way to go? Journalist and author Jim Motavalli says hybrid vehicles and the new generation of electric cars are the most ecological option. Don Scott of the National Biodiesel Board argues that the most environmentally smart fuel is biodiesel made from recycled waste and other biomass.

Plug In, Drop Out

by Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli is the author most recently of High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug In the Auto Industry (Rodale), and is a contributor to The New York Times, Car Talk at NPR, and the Mother Nature Network.

If I were buying a new car today, I’d reluctantly pass on ethanol (E85) and biodiesel options. My car of choice would be a plug-in hybrid – probably the Chevy Volt, although the Ford C-Max Energi and Honda Accord also look very attractive.

I see the plug-in hybrid as a transitional technology on the way to electric cars. Pure battery electric vehicles (EVs) are still pretty expensive, and on vehicles like the Nissan Leaf they’re still getting the bugs out. Some owners in Phoenix are finding out that running a car without active temperature control for the battery pack in 100-degree-plus weather reduces battery range. No doubt the second generation of the Leaf will be much better.

As talk show host Jay Leno told me with quite a bit of passion, the plug-in hybrid idea – 40 miles of all-electric range from a modest battery pack, backed up with a gas engine capable of another 300 miles or more – just makes sense. Leno bought a Volt, and promptly put 10,000 miles on it without using the gasoline engine much at all. The Volt, he said, is “the smart one.” Why? Because it’s “an electric car 95 percent of the time. But when you need to go to Vegas or San Francisco, it turns into a regular car. That’s the key.”

… more …

What do you think: Veggie oil or plug-in electric?

small excerpt of a poll page

Vote and Be Counted.


Email this article to a friend.

Write to the editor about this article.

Subscribe Today
cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJFour issues of the award-winning
Earth Island Journal for only $10



I too have a problem, but voted for bio-fuels, as I believe they are more efficient on average.

Electricity uses renewable fuel in a great many cases only if one uses solar or wind to charge batteries does it get close.  Batteries are still a great concern.

Bio-fuels if they are produced by using wheat is a concern, but on the other hand if they are produced using waste we are on the best path.

Bio has my vote as it comes closes on average.


By Hank Doll on Sun, January 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Unless one allocates a couple thousand watts of solar panels to their plug-in hybrid, it’s mostly a non-renewable coal/gas/nuclear/petroleum-fueled vehicle.

By Tommy on Wed, December 05, 2012 at 3:54 am

Note that biodiesel is not “veggie oil,” nor is it remotely similar to ethanol. Our company, BlackGold Biofuels, makes biodiesel from waste oils extracted from wastewater - oils that otherwise are the leading cause of sewer overflows nationwide. It’s a far cry from veggie oil.

What is important is to have diversity in our energy supply - so we can choose appropriate technology and appropriate feedstocks - whether those feedstocks from from the sewer, the fryer, the sun, the wind, etc.

By Emily Landsburg on Tue, December 04, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Plant-based biofuels and plug-in hybrids are NOT mutually-exclusive. As such, I can’t vote in this poll. The correct answer is a plug-in hybrid that gives you the option to run on either a sustainable fuel like recycled biodiesel, or for smaller trips, solar power.

As a side note, even pure electric is only as clean as its source, much of which is coal in this country.

By Kumar Plocher on Tue, December 04, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Leave a comment

Comments Policy

Please enter the word you see in the image below:


Four issues for just
$15 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!