Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Hybrid, Hybrid, Who Gets the Hybrid?
distributed 1/21/05 - ©2005

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Daniel Ziskin, the executive director of Jews of the Earth in Boulder, Colorado. We deeply appreciate Daniel as a colleague the faith-based environmental movement. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

My friends and colleagues are so excited when they get their new hybrid cars. Often, they've had to wait months for one of these popular vehicles, and at last they can get behind the wheel of their own high-tech marvel. They are thrilled that their driving will use less precious gas, and will add far less pollution to our atmosphere.

Of course they're excited. They have every reason to be proud of their careful and responsible choice.

It is just that they're the wrong people to own a hybrid.

Now, don't get me wrong. On a personal level, it is a good thing that these environmentally conscious folk have exercised wisdom and good stewardship in their car purchases. On a societal level, too, their "leading edge" purchases during these early years of hybrid technology have validated this new transportation option.

But now that hybrids are proven in the marketplace, do we really want to sell them to people who don't drive much?

Thousands of these energy-efficient marvels sit in garages every day while their owners take public transportation, ride bicycles, or walk. Hybrid owners may be less likely than other drivers to spend hour after hour on the road, and to rack up lots of miles in urban driving.

On an individual level, it makes good sense for the eco-saints to drive a hybrid. On a societal level, they're not the ones who should be getting those cars.

If we really want to reduce the use of gasoline, if we really want to cut air pollution and minimize global warming, we should be doing everything possible to get hybrid vehicles into the hands of those who drive the most.

''The more fuel you put through this technology, the greater your savings,'' said an expert at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. That doesn't mean that current hybrid owners should go out and drive more miles, of course. It does mean that those who already use lots of fuel are the best targets for generating savings.

So where could hybrid cars make the most difference?

I've seen reports saying that fleets of urban taxi cabs is a good place to start. A typical taxi uses 7,500 gallons of gas a year, versus 500 to 600 gallons for a private car. Taxis live in stop-and-go traffic, where hybrids get their most exceptional gains in gas mileage.

Hybrid technologies make great economic sense for taxi cabs. A New York City cab could save about $3,800 per year in gas costs, according to one study. There are also big savings on maintenance. For example, because hybrids have regenerative braking to capture energy ordinarily lost to braking, and convert it into electricity, there is far less wear on the brakes. That means less money in repairs, and less time in the shop.

It would be great if every car on the road was an efficient hybrid -- and someday that may be the case. But until we get to that point, it makes good sense to encourage the use of hybrids where they'll make the most difference: in taxi cabs, delivery vans, and other settings where the cars sees heavy use every day.

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Getting large fleets of hybrids on the road takes more than personal conscience and individual choice. Changes on that scale happen most readily through governmental influences. Clearly defined policies, especially at a national level, can encourage the development of new products -- like hybrid cars designed specifically as taxis -- and can shape corporate purchasing decisions.

Helpful energy legislation would encourage efficiency where it makes the most difference. It could provide tax credits or other incentives for hybrid taxis, and for improved efficiency in other large fleets of vehicles like rental cars. Getting tens of thousands of hybrid vehicles into those high-usage settings would have a real impact in reducing gas consumption and pollution. It would be a very good public policy initiative.

Tragically, the controversial Bush/Cheney energy bill that is likely to re-surface this spring does not take that sensible and ethical direction. The proposed energy legislation takes only token steps toward wide-spread energy conservation and efficiency. The energy bill places far more emphasis on increasing production of oil, gas and coal. Its effect will be to deplete scare energy reserves, increase pollution, and intrude on new areas for energy extraction -- including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

I urge you to contact your Congressperson and your Senators. Let them know how your faith and your ethics shape your expectations for a conservation-oriented energy bill.

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If you're in the market for a new car, be sure to get one with great gas mileage -- maybe even a hybrid. Encourage your friends and neighbors to be responsible in their personal choices, too.

If you're in the market for a new energy policy, demand one that provides real incentives for wide-spread energy efficiency. Don't settle for anything less.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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