Hey Mr. Green,
I keep hearing hype about how hybrid cars are so much better for the environment, yet I also hear that the process to make the batteries for them is very toxic. If so, the Toyota Prius isn't a very green car, so I won't be wasting the extra cash to damage the planet. Is this a wise choice?
--Jacque in Missoula, Montana
The fuss about Prius batteries is because they're made of nickel. Thirty years ago, Canada's nickel-mining industry was particularly toxic, but our northerly neighbors have since cleaned up their mining mess. Only a fraction of the world's nickel is used for batteries, and those made for Priuses (Prii?) are recyclable. For a fuller refutation of this and other myths about the Prius, go to tinyurl.com/mrgreenprius.
However, don't rush out to buy a $22,000 Prius unless you have unlimited funds. You might net greater energy savings by purchasing a cheaper but still-efficient car--like a Toyota Yaris--and investing the money you save in less-sexy energy-conservation measures like replacing your furnace, upgrading your insulation, and installing fluorescent lights, programmable thermostats, an Energy Star fridge, and so on. Sure, the furnace and insulation won't sit in your driveway and flaunt your environmental rectitude. But they could reduce more emissions and save more money in the long run. Consider your energy habits and where you live, and do a basic energy inventory using some simple math.
Say you drive 10,000 miles per year, mostly on the highway. The Prius is rated at 45 miles per gallon (highway), so it'll burn 222 gallons a year. If gas is $2 per gallon, you'll pay $444 per year for fuel. The efficient little Yaris gets 35 mpg, so it'll burn 286 gallons annually, costing you $572. The Prius, then, will save 64 gallons and $128 per year and emit 1,250 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide. But its base price is almost ten grand more than the Yaris.
By choosing the Yaris over the Prius, you'll have an extra $10,000 to spend on planet-preserving home upgrades that will save more energy than the Prius. Of course, if your home energy use is far less than average but you drive far more--or if gas prices climb back to the $5-per-gallon range--the equation changes.