The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Transportation Options

Today’s consumer looking for a sustainable transportation option has several choices from hybrid-electric, to plug-in hybrid vehicles, to fuel cell vehicles, to mass transit – primarily to save gas. Some of the benefits of sustainable transportation are reduced reliance on petroleum,  jobs created by green technologies, and reduction of greenhouse gases.

Gasoline-powered vehicles produce an average of 87 pounds/39 kg of greenhouse gases during a 100 mile/161 km trip, PHEVs produce only 62 pounds/28 kg and EVs only 54 pounds/24 kg.  Technologies like fuel cell vehicles produce zero emissions at the tail-pipe.  Newer forms of green transportation are typically much more expensive than gasoline powered forms of transportation and that is due in large part to high development costs and low production volumes of new technologies.  By shifting consumption of fossil fuels upstream to power plants that burn fossil fuels, the definition of green becomes a little cloudy.

EV – Electric Vehicle

Electric vehicles run entirely on batteries that are recharged overnight or at public charging stations.  General Motor’s Chevrolet Volt is the first all-electric production vehicle since the EV1 was introduced in 1996.  The Volt has a battery pack similar to a PHEV and also has a small gasoline powered generator that provides electricity to the batteries once the charge is depleted, after 35 miles of driving. The Volt’s MSRP is US $41,000/CAD $41,545 however has a lower net cost after applying tax credits while the Nissan Leaf, the next closest competitor has a MSRP of US$35,250/CAD $38,395.  J.D. Power and Associates estimates GM could sell 60,000 Chevy Volts per year if the price was US $30,000 or less.

Advantages:

  • Extended range – Volt 300 miles/482 km with gasoline generator, 35 miles/56 km electric, Nissan Leaf 73 miles/117 km
  • Fuel Economy EPA – Volt 93 mpg/2.5 L/100km all-electric  | 37 mpg/6.4 L/100km gas only | Combined 60 mpg/3.9 L/100km.  Nissan Leaf 99 mpg/2.4 L/100km
  • Overnight Recharging Discounted Rate Offered by Some Utilities

 Disadvantages:

  • Limited All-Electric Range of 35 Miles/56km at average recharge cost of 80 cents
  • High cost put EVs out of Reach of Many Consumers
  • Fossil Fuels used to Produce “Plug-in” Electricity

PHEV – Plugin Hybrid Electric Vehicles

The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Transportation Options

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The primary attraction to PHEV’s is that they combine the advantages of both HEV and EV vehicles. By using cheap locally produced electricity for commuting and short trips, fuel consumption and CO2 pollution are greatly reduced. PEVs also allow greater driving ranges with the use of a small gasoline or diesel engine.  PHEV vehicles typically have a conventional internal combustion engine and an electric motor which uses energy from batteries.  Because of larger battery arrays, PHEV’s have a range of between 10 and 40 miles/16 and 64 km in “all-electric mode” which is ideal for many commuters.  A typical overnight recharge assuming 10 cents per Kwh would cost approximately 50 cents.  The Toyota Prius has a 5.5 Kwh lithium-ion battery and each kilowatt hour of battery capacity will displace 50 US gallons/42 Imperial gallons of petroleum based fuels each year.

Advantages:

  • Fuel Economy EPA of up to 100 mpg/2.4 L/100 km
  • All-electric range of up to 40 miles/64km
  • Overnight Recharging Discounted Rate Offered by Some Utilities
  • Reduced CO2 emissions

Disadvantages:

  • Fossil Fuels Used to Produce “Plug-in” Electricity
  • Cost and Disposal of Lithium-ion Batteries
  • Cost – Estimated cost of Toyota Prius PHEV is US $32,000/CAD$27,800
  • Not all Utilities Offer Discounted Overnight Recharge Rates

 HEV – Hybrid Electric Vehicles

Hybrid-electric vehicles combine the benefits of both gasoline engines and electric motors to yield increased power and improved fuel economy. Modern compact HEVs are 40% efficient at converting fuel into power compared to 20% for gasoline fueled compact vehicles.  Some advanced technologies used in hybrid vehicles include:

Regenerative Braking – The electric motor in an HEV is used to slow the wheels down and in doing so energy is captured that would have been lost via conventional braking.  This captured energy is used to turn the electric motor which functions as a generator producing electricity which is ultimately stored in a battery.

Electric Motor Drive/Assist - When additional power is needed like during acceleration, hill climbing, or passing,  the electric motor is engaged. In some vehicles during low-speed driving, the electric motor is used since it is more efficient than an internal combustion engine.

Automatic Start/ShutoffTo prevent wasting energy during idling, the engine is automatically shut-off when the vehicle stops and is restarted when the driver presses the accelerator.

Cumulative global sales of HEVs total over 3 Million vehicles with Toyota’s Prius accounting for 2.3 Million of total units sold.  The convenience of the hybrid platform and an EPA estimate of 51MPG/4.6 L/100km Hwy|48 MPG/4.9 L/100km City making HEVs very popular with consumers as they improve gas mileage.  Pike Research forecasts worldwide demand for HEVs to reach 8.7 Million by 2017.

Advantages:

  • HEV’s produce up to 90% less toxic emissions than comparably sized gasoline powered vehicles.
  • Fuel Economy EPA of up to 51MPG/4.6 L/100km
  • Fewer moving parts to wear out

Disadvantages:

  • Cost – HEV’s typically cost US $6000 more than gasoline fueled vehicles.
  • Life of Lithium-ion battery
  • Short Range on Electric-Only Mode
  • Environmental Impact of Battery Disposal

Fuel Cell Vehicles

A fuel cell uses hydrogen stored in a tank and oxygen from the air to produce electricity that is used to power an electric motor.  Most fuel cells produce less than 1.6 volts so stacks of cells are arranged to produce the required electricity.  Modern fuel cell powered vehicles like the Honda FCX Clarity are 60% efficient in turning hydrogen fuel into power versus 20% for a compact gasoline fueled vehicle.  Due to high research and development costs it is estimated that each FCX Clarity is worth tens of millions of dollars however, as production increases costs will continue to come down.  Ford, Toyota, and Daimler have committed to bringing fuel cell vehicles to the mass market in 2015 with estimated price tags of around $50,000.

Advantages:

  • Emits water as only byproduct
  • Fuel Economy – 60 Miles/kg of Hydrogen
  • Few Moving Parts Means Less Maintenance

Disadvantages:

  • Lack of Hydrogen Fuel Infrastructure
  • Limited Range – Up to 250 Miles
  • Cost – Honda FCX Clarity Lease $650/month, Mercedes B-Class Lease $849/month
  • Lack of Availability – 200 Honda FCX Claritys over next 3 years in Southern California Only
  • Fuel Cell Durability – Currently Fuel Cells need replacing after approximately 75,000 miles

Honda has operated an experimental Home Energy Station in Torrance, California, since 2003. The Home Energy Station, which generates hydrogen from natural gas, is designed to provide heat and electricity for the home through fuel cell cogeneration and to supply fuel for a hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicle. (Source: American Honda Motor Co. Inc.)

LPG – Liquified Propane Gas

LPG is used for a variety of uses including cooking and heating as well as a fuel for vehicles.  LPG is more commonly used in fleet vehicles however, it is becoming more popular in non-commercial applications with more than 11 million vehicles worldwide. LPG is typically installed as a conversion at a certified installer and requires the installation of a storage tank, and other components and costs about $3000 to $4000.

Advantages:

  • Propane is better for environment as it contains 50% less lead and sulphur than conventional fuels.
  • Vehicles driven more than 25,000 km per year can save by converting to propane from regular gasoline.
  • Propane runs more efficiently at low speeds and in cold temperatures.
  • A  U. S. Environmental Protection Agency study determined that a properly tuned propane engine produces 30% to 90%    less carbon dioxide than a properly tuned gasoline engine.

 Disadvantages:

  • Fossil Fuel
  • Availability
  • Fuel Economy Approximately 20% Less than Gasoline

SVO – Straight Vegetable Oil Conversion

SVO can only be used in diesel engines and requires a special tank outfitted with a preheater to prevent damage to engine components.  Fuel consumption and engine power for SVO is roughly equal to gasoline which makes SVO an attractive alternative fuel.  Most restaurants have to pay to have waste vegetable oil hauled away so it is possible to obtain used oil for free.  The oil does need to be filtered and stored in sufficient quantities to make it a viable option.  Oil can also be purchased from a local processor that collects used oil from restaurants however it can be difficult locating one that will sell processed waste oil to the public.

Advantages of SVO include:

  • Vegetable Oil is Inexpensive
  • VSO is nontoxic and biodegradable
  • Requires less energy to produce than petroleum based fuels
  • CO2-neutral and free from sulfur and other pollutants

 Disadvantages

  • Can Only be Used in Diesel Engines
  • Low Quality Oil can Damage Engine
  • Ethical Issue of Using Food Crop for Transportation Needs

SVO Conversion kits are available for purchase however will need to be installed by a knowledgeable mechanic.

Electric Hybrid Bikes

Motorized bikes or “pedelecs” , combine a small electric motor powered by a rechargeable battery with good old fashioned pedal power. The range of the electric motor is from 20 to 50 miles/32 to 80 km depending on the terrain while speeds range from 20 to 25 mph/32 to 40 kph.  The low top speed allows the pedelec in many areas to avoid vehicle license and insurance costs making it extremely inexpensive to operate.  A typical recharge of the 10.5 pound battery costs about 10 cents.

A motorized bike makes most sense for short trips to a neighborhood store to pick up a few items.  By eliminating one four mile trip per week you can reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 1200 pounds or 544 kg per year.

Advantages:

  • Range – 20-50 Miles/32 to 80 km
  • Inexpensive to Operate – 10 cents per charge
  • Inexpensive Conversion Kits available for $399

 Disadvantages:

  • Cost – Izip Express Electric Bike Retails for $3,499
  • Not Practical for Most Commuters
  • Safety Concerns

Ethanol & E85

Flex Fuel vehicles can run on gasoline or a mixture of up to 85% ethanol. According to a recent article in Forbes, on an equivalent energy basis, the cost of corn feedstock for corn-based ethanol is $3.80 per gallon which brings into question the viability of ethanol as a long-term fuel option.  This is especially true since production and transportation costs are not included.  Another issue with corn-based ethanol production is the shifting of agricultural production of crops such as barley, oats, and cotton to corn and the subsequent price inflation of those crops.

Advantages:

  • Reduction in Greenhouse Gas Emissions

 Disadvantages:

  • Not a Viable Long-Term Solution
  • Large Subsidies Required to Keep Prices Competitive with Gasoline
  • Farms Switching to Corn Production from Barley, Oats, and Cotton

Mass Transit

Mass Transit is large-scale public transportation typically comprising of buses, subways, trains, ferries, and elevated trains.

Advantages:

  • Reduction in Greenhouse Gas Emissions – one person can reduce carbon emissions by 4800 pounds per year
  • Helps to Ease Traffic Congestion
  • Individuals that use Mass Transit can save $7,000 in Canada CUTA /$9,964 Annually US – APTA 9/2011
  • HOV Lanes Cut Commute Time

 Disadvantages:

  • Large Capital Outlay of Taxpayer Dollars
  • Fixed Routes

As production levels increase, prices for green vehicles will continue to fall.  Ultimately Government tax incentives and consumer choice will determine the long-term viability of current sustainable transportation technologies.

Please leave a comment, we would love to hear your thoughts on sustainable transportation options.

Author:  Paul Vachon is Founder of The Frugal Toad, a personal finance blog providing money saving tips for everyday living.

40 comments to The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Transportation Options

  • brad

    Two of the most sustainable options are missing: 1) standard human-powered bicycles and 2) your own two feet.

    Thousands of people in my city (Montréal) use bicycle as their only or at least primary form of transportation within the city, and thousands more use bikes as one element of a “transportation cocktail” that uses a mix of walking, biking, and public transit to get around.

    There’s even a moving company here that uses only bikes with trailers, even moving large items like refrigerators, stoves, beds, etc. I have a friend who has been car-free here for 30 years; he has a canoe and tows it to the water on his bike with a trailer.

    Another good option for many people is car-sharing (e.g., Zipcar). Sharing a car among multiple users reduces the number of cars on the road and can save individuals thousands of dollars per year.

    • For people who live in cities like Montreal where transit is well done and the city is so old and dense that neighbourhoods are almost mini-cities unto themselves, walking and biking can work.

      We’re in Peterborough and if I needed to get to a location in the north or west end of town (and I live downtown), especially in winter, these are not viable options lest you care to risk frost bite, crazy winter drivers and hours of travel time.

      Since I have covered the benefits of walking and biking to work I was happy this post focused on motorized vehicles.

    • I intentionally did not include biking as a mode of green transportation because it is simply not a viable mode of transportation for the vast majority of people. According to the latest survey data published on the Transport Canada website, “only 1.4% of people living within one of the country’s Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs) cycle to work on a regular basis.” Commute distance, weather, and multi-stop trips are major reasons for biking not being a practical mode of transportation for a majority of people.

  • Talk about mega post! I personally love the idea of electric bike myself. It may be expensive, but Trek just came out with one that has a nice interface that lets you control how much power you want to help you. It comes in handy for big hills and such, making your commute just a little more do-able. I don’t have one, but I almost won one (2nd place in a competition instead of 1st – huge disappointment, right?) They are kind of expensive, as you noted.

  • Wow, nice list of options, love the pros and cons too. I like the idea of a hybrid car, but need to keep saving for a while first (like you pointed out, they aren’t cheap). For the time being, my wife and I get by with one car and use public transport to get to and from work.

    • Mass transit is by far the most popular green transportation option used by the general public today. We ride the light rail in Phoenix to sporting events downtown and really like the convenience of not having to find parking or fighting traffic.

  • Incredibly comprehensive list. Right now I own one flex fuel vehicle. All the rest were before the hybrid movement became popular. I will definitely consider that option for future purchases both from an environmental standpoint and cost of gasoline. I don’t know that I would go all electric until there is a little more history.

  • For me, the biggest hurdle to overcome is the cost of replacement of the batteries. I would love to buy a hybrid or electric car. I think in the next few years, it will be refined and less expensive versions will be available. I would like to see the LPG cars more popular too. Everything will depend on popularity.

    • Nissan recently announced a new fuel cell stack that costs 1/6th the price of it’s 2005 lithium ion battery and it produces 2.5 times more power. Nissan is planning a Fuel Cell vehicle for sale in 2014 for purchase at an estimated $50,000. Prices will continue to remain high until a hydrogen distribution system makes producing large numbers of fuel cell vehicles possible.

  • Wow, What a great post. Very thorough. I think you covered everything really well and it gives people something to think about.

    I heard recently that one of the biggest issues with electric cars, hybrid or not, is that after 5-7 years, the batteries are toast and they end up in the land fills. To me that is not a solution. We need to figure out a way to recycle or reload these batteries. Have you come across anything like this in your research?

    • According to GM and Nissan, the batteries in the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf will have 70% life remaining after 10 years. GM is working with on potential uses of discarded batteries, for instance researchers have shown that a pack of 33 Volt batteries could power 50 homes for 4 hours.
      GM is also working with ABB on using re-purposed batteries to store energy and feed back into the power grid.

  • I got a Toyota Prius in December, and I am loving every minute of it! I track my fuel consumption carefully, and I am averaging 50 miles per gallon. Love it!

    Thanks for the comprehensive overview of what is available!

  • I once thought about buying hybrid car. But when I looked at average MPG, it was around 40mpg. At the time, corolla was averaging about 32mpg so there wasn’t that much of difference from my perspective. I also noticed that many of these options listed above have higher cost as disadvantage. I hope these price range will come down quickly so that we can be more green.

    • While it is true Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicles are only available as a lease option, $600 for the Honda FCX Clarity, prices will come down as production increases. The problem is hydrogen distribution is not widely available and until that is addressed, Fuel Cell vehicle production will remain low.

  • Awesome list! Here is my problem with all these electricity options. We are currently producing no where near enough electricity for any large scale conversion of vehicles. So where is this coming from? I think right now any advancements in wind and solar power should be put towards industrial use. Up here in Manitoba we’ve seen success with hydro electric, but that’s pretty unique. Unless nuclear suddenly gets safe, I’m not sure what the long-term plan is there. I think money should be plowed into hydrogen-based research, as that is the real future IMHO.

    • Great point MUM. With the brown outs and such experienced in North America a few years ago it is obvious the system, and production, is antiquated. I do think a lot of the generation and grid improvements, at least in the east, could help. Burning coal to make electric power isn’t going to do it – from a sustainability perspective. We’ve seen the dangers of nuclear … but somehow I don’t see Big Oil letting hydrogen get off the ground any time soon.

    • Good point MUM. The recharge electricity produced in urban areas is typically from fossil fuel powered plants which can contribute to atmosphere emissions in areas that are already dealing with pollution. Nuclear is very safe however disposal of spent fuel remains an issue. The nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Facility in Japan could have been avoided with a simple redesign of the emergency generators elevating and isolating them from potential flooding.

  • I love how you explain all of the different options as well as the pro’s and con’s. I still can’t decide which I’d want, but it’s nice to see them compared. :-)

  • If anyone is looking into purchasing a more sustainable car, definitely check with your state government. I was surprised to learn that my state’s environmental agency actually had a program for the last few years to help with a purchase of more fuel-efficient vehicles! This could have been paired with the federal government’s cash for clunkers program. Pretty great savings if it was the right time for someone to upgrade.

  • Wow, this is literally the best post on sustainable transportation options I’ve seen in a long time … maybe the best EVER on this topic.

    Public transit isn’t realistic where I live, unfortunately, but I would LOVE to have a Prius someday.

  • There are many options for green transportation Paula and each one has both positives and negatives.

  • outsourcing bookkeeping

    Great subject and I really appreciate the comparison of hybrid and electric vehicles. We drive a Honda hybrid vehicle today and we love it. My dream is to have a system of roof solar panels for electricity and then get a free electric car.

  • Great informative post. Electric-assisted bicycles are *very* popular in China, but not so practical in many US and Canadian cities.

    • Western societies have become accustomed to having the resources required to build transportation infrastructure based on the internal combustion engine. Countries like China are in the midst of a transportation revolution. Because of the lack of economic resources most individuals commute by bicycle however this is rapidly changing with 91 million vehicles at the end of 2010 and estimates of 1 Billion vehicles by mid century.

      • China is also a major reason for the explosion of fuel prices. As members of the Chinese society gain affluence they seek vehicles and the demand for oil resources, across the (world) board rise.
        Alternative solutions are required. The earth can’t sustain current demand, let alone increased demand from emerging markets.

      • A billion cars in 2050? That’s the problem with linear estimates, they don’t consider other factors. China is having serious water problems, even today. How are they going to keep those cars clean, 40 years from now?

        :-)

  • There’s been a quiet push in the US for natural gas vehicles over diesel mostly. Several cities and companies have jumped on board, converting buses, delivery vehicles, garbage trucks, and tractor-trailers.

    As for me, mass transit all the way. I severed ties with my car a over a decade ago. Don’t regret it.

  • George

    The 125cc motorcycle is the preferred means of transportation in many parts of the world. Such a vehicle would be the perfect solution for those of us who live in rural areas where long commutes make bicycle, pedelec and scooter use impractical. What is the likelihood that such vehicles will become readily available in the United States in the near future?

    • Hopefully Frugal Toad sees this comment and gives his opinion.

      I know here in Canada there is a large portion of the year where motorcycles are impractical, even dangerous. A few feet of snow will do that.

    • The 125cc motorcycle has a 2 stroke engine which does not meet EPA emission standards and therefor is not permitted to be imported into the USA. Motorcycles are very popular mode of transportation in Asia and the majority of motorcycles produced worldwide end up in that region. In addition, Pike Research estimates that there are currently 17 million e-motorcycles and e-scooters worldwide with an estimated 138 Million in use by 2017. E-scooters will outsell e-motorcycles worldwide by a 6 to 1 margin, except in the US where the e-motorcycle is more popular due to their higher speeds and longer ranges.

  • George

    Most of the 125cc motorcycles being used for personal transportation worldwide have 4 stroke engines.

  • […] For 2012 you may be contemplating a more eco-friendly form of transportation.  This week Sustainable Personal Finance shared a great post that is The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Transportation Options. […]

  • […] When I bought my last car, I wondered if I was ready to make the leap to a hybrid.  No, I wasn’t.  But Paul Vachon’s guest post on Sustainable Personal Finance has some really good information on alternate transportation. […]

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