Efficiency Good; Hyperbole Bad

The Monday, April 20 Washington Post included an 8-page "advertorial" insert called Environmental Leadership--presumably in anticipation of Earth Day (not available on line). It included about a dozen guest articles on a wide array of environmental topics. Great! (although one of the advertising supporters is the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which promotes the oxymoron "clean coal." You can read more about my opinion of carbon capture and storage here.)

One of the guest writers is Nancy Sutley, the new Obama administation Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Her column runs the gamut, touching on a wide array of environmental issues--the normal rhetoric one would expect--but I stopped when I read this line: "We plan to put a million plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road, dramatically increasing the fuel efficiency of our nation's fleet of vehicles with batteries built in the U.S."

"Dramatically increasing?" Let's do a quick back of the envelope. In 2006 there were 234 million cars and light trucks on the road representing an average fuel economy of 20.30 mpg. Let's make some optimistic assumptions:
- Plug-in hybrids are the equivalent of 100 mpg
- All 1,000,000 new hybrids replace SUVs (average 18 mpg)

If we use 2006 as a proxy, replacing 1,000,000 SUVs with plug-in hybrids, then the new fleet economy rises to 20.38 mpg, an minuscule increase of .08 miles per gallon. Or put another way, an increase of about 425 feet per gallon. Another way to achieve the exact same reduction in fuel consumption would be to reduce the distance each car drives by about 50 miles per year--a 0.4% decrease.

Now don't get me wrong: I am totally in favor of transforming our economy to more environmentally sustainable technologies and systems, but I think a hyperbolic statement like this sugarcoats the magnitude of the challenge in front of us.

Let's put those million vehicles out there, but it's just a down payment. I think it would have been much better to say, ""We plan to put a million plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road, a small but important first step in transforming our nation's fleet of automobiles"

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