Let Sustainable Transportation Drive Your Buying Habits

Steve Heckeroth examines common misconceptions about sustainable transportation, and offers advice on how to make your commute more eco-friendly.
By Steve Heckeroth
May 19, 2014
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Heckeroth's RAV4 EV has 160,000 trouble-free miles. The shed in the background has a photovoltaic roof to offset the electricity for charging the EV. The solar array paid for itself long ago and now provides free power.
Photo by Steve Heckeroth

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When you wake up in any city in North America you hear the roar of hundreds or even thousands of internal combustion engines. There are over 200 million licensed drivers in the United States who each burn an average of 800 gallons of fuel annually to go a total of over 3 trillion miles. We seem to have forgotten that we have legs. The only walking many people do is to and from their car. Even many of the people who realize the critical importance of exercise — let alone sustainable transportation — get in their car to drive to the gym. To make matters worse, the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. for the last 32 years is the Ford F Series pickup truck. In 2013, three out of the five top-selling autos in America were pickup trucks that get less than 18 miles per gallon. This may explain how America, with only 4 percent of the world population, burns about 25 percent of the oil consumed in the entire world.

The Loophole Big Enough to Drive a Truck Through

According to federal regulations, light-duty trucks are supposed to be primarily designed for the transport of property or for off-road operation, and have a gross vehicle weight of less than 14,000 pounds. The "light truck" classification was created in the early 1970s to acknowledge the difficulty that vehicles used for work or on the farm would have meeting the same standards as cars. In 1978, Congress enacted the federal Gas Guzzler Tax and again exempted light trucks. The auto industry has exploited the fact that vehicles in this category do not need to meet the same safety, fuel economy or emission standards as cars by introducing luxury trucks, vans and four-wheel drive SUVs that are mainly used for the on-road transport of people. A study by Friends of the Earth found that, since 1999, automakers have avoided paying billions in Gas Guzzler taxes by calling passenger vehicles "light trucks." Because trucks don’t need to meet the same safety, emission or fuel economy standards, they are much cheaper to manufacture so the profit margin on these "light trucks" can be more than ten times greater than that of the more fuel efficient cars that serve the same purpose.

The billions of dollars that have gone into advertising these grossly inefficient vehicles has taken light truck sales from 30 percent of vehicle sales in 1990 to over 50 percent of the nearly 20 million vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2013. As a result, the fuel economy of the U.S. vehicle fleet as a whole has been declining over the same period, even though the fuel efficiency of cars has been increasing. Indeed, the advertising of utility vehicles has been so successful that many environmentalists drive four-wheel drive vehicles so (supposedly) they can get closer to nature. In fact, less than 10 percent of the vehicles in the light truck category ever get used for the off-road or utility use that allowed them to avoid the same safety, fuel economy, emission standards and taxes imposed on cars. Now, it is a common sight to see grocery store parking lots full of shiny big vans, four-wheel drive SUVs and even monstrous crew-cab pickups with dual rear wheels.

Please, join the Friends of the Earth in pushing to close this sustainable transportation loophole. If you are using a pickup truck, van or four-wheel drive vehicle as a daily driver and complaining about the high cost of fuel, you might want to consider whether your vehicle choice was your own or driven by corporate advertising.

The Fossil Fuel Timeline

“Our planet seen by extraterrestrials 3.9 billion years ago would have been a brown globe-girdling ocean with an atmosphere composed mostly of hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. If they checked back 2.4 billion years ago the atmosphere would have been mostly nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane with blooms of blue-green algae in the ocean. A few hundred million years later photosynthesis started flooding the atmosphere with oxygen, paving the way for the evolution of oxygen dependent life forms starting about 500 million years ago."  — Lisa Kaltenegger, Time, January 2014

Think of the 2 billion years of photosynthesis that it took to put oxygen in the air and hydrocarbons in the ground as 2 miles of distance. In relation to those 2 miles, the last hundred years is equal to the thickness of a piece of paper. Compared to real time use of energy from the sun, burning fossil fuel is trillions of times less efficient because of the billions of years of photosynthesis and rare geologic events it took to produce it.

Internal combustion vehicles are only about 15 percent efficient at moving a typical 2-ton vehicle, and far less than 1 percent efficient at moving the 100- to 200-pound people driving them. Vehicle efficiency is usually measured in miles per gallon, assuming the fuel somehow magically appears in the tank. Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has started measuring fuel efficiencies more accurately from well to wheel. But as the conventional wells run dry, they are replaced by much less efficient ways to extract oil.

A Train Wreck Waiting to Happen

As conventional light-crude oil wells were depleted worldwide, the prices went from $20 a barrel in 2002 to over $100 in 2008, and then unconventional heavy crude, deep water and tar sand extraction became economically feasible. There is now an oil boom in areas where extraction costs can reach $80 a barrel. Companies can still make a profit, as long as no environmental remediation is factored in. The environmental risks of unconventional extraction can be devastating, as we witnessed with the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The cheapest way to move oil is by pipeline, but pipelines can take years to build, so thousands of rail tanker cars are pushed into service as once-marginal oilfields become profitable.

In 2013, more oil spilled from trains in the U.S. than the total spilled since the federal government began collecting such data in the early 1970s. Major derailments in Alabama and North Dakota spilled more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil from rail cars in the U.S. in 2013. Not to be outdone, Canada witnessed 1.5 million gallons of crude oil spilled in Quebec on July 6, 2013, when a runaway train derailed and exploded, destroying most of a town and killing 47 people.

The economic consequences of our transportation choices may be painful on an individual basis, but the environmental consequences threaten the future of life on Earth. In the last hundred years, we have burned most of the Earth’s easily recoverable petroleum resources without a thought to the consequences and without a clue of what we were going to use for fuel when petroleum runs low and its price goes through the roof. As we demand ever more oil for our grossly inefficient vehicles, the economic and environmental costs are spiraling out of control, bankrupting nations and polluting the air, water and soil on which all life depends.

The Diminishing of Energy Return on Investment

The average "energy return on investment," or EROI, for conventional oil before 1970 was roughly 25:1. In other words, 25 units of oil-based energy are obtained for every one unit of other energy that is used to extract it. The EROI for deep water drilling can be as little as 5:1. For heavy oil that needs to be heated before it can be pumped out of the ground the EROI can be as low as 4:1 and for oil shale and tar sands it can be less than 3:1. More energy used to get less oil out of the ground means more pollution for less production (Rachel Nuwer, InsideClimate News, February 2013).

Even the EROI only tells part of the energy story. The natural gas that is used to extract oil out of tar sands also has an EROI that is spiraling out of control as fracking becomes a common practice, contaminating groundwater and causing earthquakes across America. And what about all the energy that is needed to heat the homes and fuel the vehicles of the tar sand workers? When all the externalities are accounted for, including restoration of miles of black lifeless scars in what used to be pristine wilderness, it is likely that the real EROI is 2 or even 1:1 for tar sands. Then, add in the energy to get the oil to the refinery, the energy used at the refinery and finally the energy to get the refined fuel into your tank. If tar sand oil is too expensive for the American market, no problem — just build the 2000-mile Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico where it can be shipped to more desperate markets with few resources.  

It is long past time to adopt a way to measure the overall efficiency of the energy resources used to transport our bodies. An understanding of finite-nature fossil fuels and the effect that extracting and burning them has on the environment is needed to measure the sustainability of our transportation choices.

From Sun to Wheel

Producing electricity from solar energy using photovoltaics (PV) is from 15 to 20 percent efficient, and solar thermal electric generation can reach over 35 percent efficiency. Current battery charge-discharge efficiency varies from 80 to 95 percent. Electric motors can be over 90 percent efficient including line and controller losses. Total efficiency from sun to wheel for electric cars is between 4 and 6 percent.

PV panels placed in the sun produce enough clean renewable energy to pay back the energy that was used to make them in as little as a couple of months. They will keep producing free energy for many decades with very little maintenance.

Photosynthesis by plants is a maximum of 1 percent efficient at converting solar energy into carbohydrates in the natural environment. The efficiency of producing biofuels from carbohydrates and then getting fuel in a vehicles' tank varies widely from 10 to 35 percent, depending on the process and the distance to the use. Next, there is the low 10 to 15 percent efficiency of the internal combustion engine (ICE) and drivetrain. This gives an overall efficiency for burning biofuels from sun to wheel of about .01 to .05 percent. It is questionable whether biofuels offer a net energy return after factoring in all of the inputs for harvest (distillation and transport). Fuel crops can take a lot of water and land that would be better used to grow food. When most of the U.S. corn crop was used to make enough ethanol to meet misguided programs, the price of tortillas in Mexico quadrupled. The corn used to make enough ethanol to fill up the tank of an SUV one time could provide enough calories to feed a person for an entire year.

When measured from sun to wheel, solar-charged electric vehicles are 80 to 600 times more efficient than vehicles burning biofuels. Also, solar charged EVs have a very minimal impact on soil, water and air when compared to biofuels. Of course, burning biofuels is much better than burning fossil fuels — but why settle for less pollution when you can have zero emissions?


Fueling cars on recycled veggie oil had a great EROI because the oil was free, but fast-food grease pits could only supply a limited number of early adopters. As biofuels became more mainstream, drivers wanted to have their green fuel at the gas pump. Soon there was not enough recycled oil to keep up with demand, and oil crops were planted. As demand increased, federal programs encouraged the diversion of food crops to produce fuel with billions of dollars in funding.

Because it takes about 10 units of fossil energy to produce 1 unit of carbohydrate energy — when plants are forced to grow in mono-crop conditions on the massive scale of corporate agribusiness — the EROI went negative. In other words, it was taking about 10 units of fossil energy to make 1 unit of bioenergy. This is why the fossil industry supported biofuels. In the last few years the financial crisis and rising food prices caused by the conversion of farmland to biofuel production triggered a re-evaluation of federal subsidies. There are still a few areas of the country where most of the corn crop is used to make ethanol, but a negative EROI will be hard to maintain without subsidies.

Hydrogen Hoax

The pure hydrogen required to power a fuel cell does not exist in nature. Almost all the hydrogen used in the U.S. is extracted from nonrenewable natural gas. Separating hydrogen atoms from natural gas uses additional fossil energy. Hydrogen can also be extracted from water but the process uses more energy than the resulting hydrogen contains. Safely storing enough hydrogen to go more than 100 miles before needing to refuel is another issue that needs to be resolved. Then there is the fact that hydrogen refilling infrastructure is very expensive and nonexistent. In addition, fuel cells for vehicles still cost over $200,000 each and have a very limited range, even after 15 years and billions of dollars in federal funding.

The Plug-In Hybrid Solution

Technologies exist to clean the air, stabilize the climate and maintain our standard of living all at the same time. By relying on clean renewable technologies we can eliminate much of the U.S.’s trade deficit and the reason for war while achieving energy independence. A quick study of the chart in the slideshow illustrates the overwhelming advantages of plug-in hybrids (PHEV) and battery electric vehicles (EV). EVs are zero emission and can be charged from zero-emission renewable energy sources like the sun and wind. By adding more batteries to hybrid electric vehicles (HEV), plug-in hybrids can be built which offer the range of gas vehicles (400 miles) with the zero emission and cost-saving benefits of battery electric vehicles for short trips.

The main assumptions used to produce the values in the chart are:

  1. The average cost of gasoline over the next year will be approximately $3.50/gallon.
  2. The Time of Use (TOU) rate for nighttime charging is approximately $0.07/kwh.
  3. Including the production energy, there is over 40 kwh of energy in a gallon of gasoline.
  4. Including the production, exhaust burning 1 gallon of gasoline creates over 25 pounds of CO2.

EVs have a history that stretches back before gas cars were on the road, and even before there were paved roads. They have always been the clean and quiet solution, but until recently the weight and size of batteries made long-distance travel impractical. The development of Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries in the 1990s made ranges of up to 100 miles per charge possible in a compact car. Just in the last few years, the development of Lithium batteries now allows full-sized luxury cars to go up to 300 miles on a charge. These batteries are still expensive, but the battery cost continues to drop as the volume of EVs increases.

In 2002, I purchased one of about 200 RAV4 EVs that were sold as part of Toyota’s compliance with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Program. Toyota was the only manufacturer to offer EVs for sale. All the other automakers only offered leases to comply with the program. Shortly after I purchased my EV, General Motors and the Bush administration sued the State of California, claiming that only the federal government had the right to set fuel economy standards. Never mind that the federal government wasn’t doing its job or that California was regulating emissions — not fuel economy standards. In April 2003, CARB abandoned the ZEV Program and adopted the Hydrogen Program that was supposed to require auto manufacturers to build 250 fuel cell vehicles by 2008. So instead of the hundreds of thousands of competitively priced EVs required by 2003 in the original ZEV program, only a few dozen multi-million-dollar fuel cell vehicles were tested for a short time — and zero emissions was declared to be an unrealistic goal. Meanwhile, GM and all the other manufacturers recalled and crushed all the EVs they had leased when the Zero Emission Vehicle Program was scrapped.

Fortunately, those of us who purchased RAV4 EVs were able to keep our cars. We now have 160,000 trouble-free miles on our EV and can testify that zero-emission vehicles are measurably superior in almost every way to ICE-powered cars. We installed a 3 kw PV roof to offset the electricity used to charge our EVs and to power our homestead in 1999. I use about 20 kwh to commute about 60 miles a day and charge the E-RAV at night using the low off-peak rate of $.07/kwh. A full charge costs about $1.50 or 2 1/2 cents a mile. Adding windshield washer fluid and changing the tires once are the only other expenses I have had on the car in 12 years. Because the E-RAV is equipped with regenerative braking that charges the batteries when I slow down or stop, the mechanical brakes are still like new. During the day, my solar array pumps energy back into the grid and I get compensated at peak rates of up to $.35/kwh. My solar roof paid for itself long ago and now gives us free power.

The RAV4 EVs originally sold for $29,000 after rebate. Because they were the only commercially produced EVs available for many years, some were resold for as much as $80,000. Until recently, the auto industry continued to claim that there was not enough demand for EVs for them to be commercially manufactured. Then Tesla changed everything — first with its roadster that went zero-to-60-mph in 2.8 seconds and had a 235-mile range between charges. Then, in 2010, the Model S 7 passenger luxury sedan that goes zero-to-60 in 4 seconds was introduced with up to a 300-mile range. In the same year, Nissan came out with the all-electric LEAF. In 2011, Chevy Volt plug-in hybrids went on sale with a 40-mile all-electric range and a backup ICE to take the car up to 400 miles on a tank. Every major auto manufacturer announced the introduction of at least one plug-in model in 2013. U.S. sales of plug-in hybrids have gone from a few thousand in 2010 to 100,000 in 2013. These numbers are encouraging until you consider that plug-in hybrids only represent .07 percent of the 240 million licensed cars and trucks in America.

 If you are one of the millions of Americans who has been compelled by corporate advertising to buy a truck that rarely carries anything in the bed, or a four-wheels drive SUV that has never been driven off-road, please give future generations a fighting chance and get your gas guzzler off the road permanently. Even if you are driving an ICE car that supposedly gets good mileage, go to Plug In America and make your next car one of the 25 different plug-in hybrids now available. Then, consider having solar panels installed on your roof for free and never going to a gas station again.

Designing Walkable Cities

Even if we were able to totally switch to solar-charged electric vehicles tomorrow, we would still have a long list of problems to solve. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for people between the ages of 4 and 45. Diseases linked to lack of exercise are the leading cause of death for everyone over 45. Most U.S. towns and cities are covered with asphalt for roads and parking lots, while the places where people can walk are narrow strips of dirty concrete. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are towns all over the world that were laid out as walkable cities before cars existed. The most successful of these towns have several things in common:

  1. Adequate — but not too much — water. Access to a sustainable fresh water supply was the primary determining factor in the location of most preindustrial towns, but building above the flood plain was another very important consideration.
  2. Green belts. Without massive inputs of fossil energy, towns had to be surrounded by protected farms and wild land to ensure a sustainable source of food and building materials.
  3. Narrow roads. Only a few wider roads for commerce enter the town center. All other roads exist primarily for foot traffic and narrow carts.
  4. Density. Living and working spaces are tightly packed. Shop owners often live above their shops. Ideally, daily activities are all within walking distance.

These basic guidelines for walkable cities have not changed over millennia, but recent advances in technology and renewable power generation add new opportunities to make communities even more vibrant and sustainable:

  1. Solar access. The increased efficiency and reduced cost of photovoltaics and solar thermal systems now makes it possible for anyone with solar access to power most of their energy needs from the sun.
  2. Internet access. Cell phones and connected computers allow communication and many work-related tasks without the need to move bodies or vehicles.
  3. Mass transit. Technologies like Pod Cars and Evacuated Tube Transport will be able to move people and goods from town to town using a small fraction of the land and energy needed for roads and conventional vehicles.
  4. Ultralights. Very lightweight pedal, pedal/electric and solar/electric 1- and 2-person vehicles will make personal transportation orders of magnitude more efficient than the autos of today.
  5. V2G. Vehicle to Grid (V2G) technology allows EV batteries to interact with whatever they’re plugged into. For example, when your EV is plugged into the grid and there is a power failure, the batteries in your car could power your home. When a power outage threatens a critical-care facility, instead of running diesel generators the EVs (in combination with solar shade structures in the parking lot) can keep the power on. Even better, when thousands of EVs are plugged into the grid, power outages can be avoided by tapping into power from batteries when electric demand is high, and charging batteries when demand is low.
  6. GPS and GIS. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) work with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to locate us at any given time. Navigation systems using GPS and GIS have all but eliminated the need for printed maps in just a few years. These systems can also be used to locate the best places to install solar panels or locate housing within walking or biking distance from work and schools.
  7. Lighter than air and water. Blimps, dirigibles and zeppelins covered with solar panels could offer luxury long-distance travel through the air, and solar ships could make ecotourism truly eco.

Burn or Breathe

People can survive about four weeks without food, four days without water and four minutes without oxygen. Oxygen is arguably the most precious resource on Earth. Burning a gallon of gasoline consumes enough oxygen to keep a baby alive for about two weeks.

 The longer we continue burning fossil fuel, the direr the warnings from scientists will be about the irreversible consequences of CO2 emissions. Warming accelerates as white-heat-reflecting polar ice gets replaced by dark-heat-absorbing open seawater. As the warming continues, the permafrost thaws — releasing more carbon dioxide and methane, which in turn causes more melting, and so on. It is unclear whether we have already driven to the point where the Earth will be unable to support life, but it is clear that we are accelerating in that direction.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. If you really need to drive, get an electric car and install a solar array on your roof to charge it. Better yet, live where your home is within walking or cycling distance of employment, schools and services. Work at home if you can. Support local businesses that attempt to move toward sustainability. Remember: What we buy, we empower. If we stop empowering life-threatening systems, they will change or fade away.

Steve Heckeroth is a contributing editor to MOTHER EARTH NEWS. On the first Earth Day in 1970, Heckeroth committed his life to replacing fossil energy with direct solar energy. He has designed and built over 20 passive solar homes and 30 electric vehicles including Porsche Spyders and agricultural tractors. He was Director of Building Integrated Photovoltaics for Uni-Solar from 2000 to 2008, and has written dozens of articles and given over a hundred presentations on solar design and sustainable transportation.

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Post a comment below.


7/24/2014 11:37:49 AM
Thank you for your article. Americans need to take a hard look at the wasteful vehicles they drive. I plan on purchasing a car later this year and will not be buying a "gas guzzler". It is disgusting how government lets big business get away with not paying taxes and then raises individual taxes to make up the deficit. I do agree with the one comment and would have liked a little more car buying help in the article. I think the other comment must have come from a person who works with car manufacturers. Again thank you.

6/6/2014 11:58:38 AM
I am interested in sustainable transportation, but didn't have time to read through all the "preaching" to find actionable information.

6/6/2014 7:48:39 AM
This article is one of the most skewed, non-factual pieces I have read for a long time. His references to "free", forgets the fact it is not free, but paid for by taxpayers! How is that free or sustainable for anyone?? Mostly an article of platitudes and fictionalized numbers, not back up by research or facts. Reads like a fairy tale, rather than a practical account of changing the world. Why is Mother Earth News publishing non-vetted articles like this? Where each page has at least one factual error!

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