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As Australia continues to embrace environmentally friendly practices, there’s no doubt that the hybrid vehicle has become a new must-have. But new research has revealed that the move toward ‘greener’ electric cars could have detrimental side effects.  Gemma Wolk reports…

As Tim Perry opens the car door to drive to work, the look of elation on his face is hard to ignore. His new pride and joy, a sleek black Toyota, sits proudly in the driveway of their family home in Carlingford, Sydney.

“I felt ready to treat myself,” says Perry with a smile.

Enthusiastically, he hops into the front seat and gets ready to drive to Merrylands for another day’s work. After he unlocks the vehicle, he starts the engine with a small electronic black box instead of the usual car key and removes the ‘hand’-brake with his foot. It’s already clear that this drive will be slightly different to a conventional one.

“I’ve always driven smaller cars and had saved some money… I didn’t want anything else,” Perry explains.

And it’s not hard to see why.

The car sets off down the road, switching seamlessly and silently between petrol and electric power throughout the journey. The only indication that the engine is doing anything out of the ordinary is the occasional faint stalling sound.

Tim Perry is the proud owner of a Toyota Prius hybrid, an environmentally friendly vehicle taking Australia by storm with its convergence between electricity and petrol power.

“When I was researching cars to buy I read about hybrids so went to Toyota, test drove one and was immediately happy. Look at all the exciting electronics and gadgets it has, and it’s so economical to run!” he beams.

Perry isn’t the only one reaping the benefits of the Prius. According to the Toyota website, in late November 2009 the Prius hybrid scored 17.5 out of 20 on the Federal Government’s Green Vehicle Guide. It is the highest-ranking vehicle on the Guide, and the lowest CO2 emitter, using less fuel than every other car on the market.

“My previous car used 7.5L/100km. The hybrid averages 5L/100km. So we save a lot on fuel firstly, simply because it uses less fuel than my last car and secondly as we use it as the family car instead of our other car,” says Perry.

Currently the hybrid vehicles available in Australia are equipped with a battery as a power source, but don’t call for manual charging.

“[The hybrid] is all automatic. It recharges from electricity generated by braking and cruising. You never need to charge the car. It switches silently and seamlessly between petrol and electric as you drive,” explains Perry.

The dual power of hybrid vehicles are set to eventually phase out in order to make way for entirely electric vehicles, the first of which will break into the market within the next few years. The transition will call for charging stations to power these fully electric vehicles, and in turn, a possibly detrimental increase in electricity usage.

On Derby Place in Glebe, just half an hour’s drive away from the Perry home, a new idea is taking place. Car Sharing is an environmentally friendly initiative being introduced throughout the city to encourage a reduction in car use. The Glebe car share station is the newest addition to the city and employs hybrid vehicles. Customers book a share car online, before picking up the car from the specified station and returning it when finished.

The station, installed May 24 by GoGet Car Sharing, is capable of charging a Toyota Prius hybrid in three hours. Anthony Mifsud, Transport Planner for City of Sydney, has enthusiastically overseen the development of the project.

“The city adopted its car share program for the environmental benefit, making it a realistic option to not own a car in the city and we know that more than a third of our residents don’t… You don’t have to own a car necessarily in the city if you don’t want to, but you can share a car,” says Mifsud.

Mifsud helped develop the initiative, and is adamant that car sharing is the first step toward a reduction of unnecessary emissions in the city.

“If you have to book a car ahead and pay for it – you know, seven or eight bucks an hour – then you might think a bit more carefully about whether you really need it and how far you need to drive,” he says.

On paper, everything seems all a little too good to be true, and a scheme that is attempting to incorporate reduced carbon emissions, environmentally friendly vehicles and car sharing, may be just that.

“We think in general electric vehicles are beneficial, but there are a lot of pitfalls that you have to avoid. You have to be aware that sometimes environmental initiatives can have unwanted side effects,” Mifsud explains.

Clive Matthew-Wilson, editor of the Dog&Lemon Guide, agrees that all may not be as ‘green’ as it seems. This eccentric Kiwi, who sports a bald head, fantastic sideburns and small black rectangular framed glasses, is a complete car fanatic.

“I’m a motor mechanic and used to run my own garage. I also have a collection of classic cars,” he explains.

It was this passion for automobiles that initially drove Wilson to look further into the electric car movement. Unlike most enthusiasts, his background education in social conscience meant it was natural for him to pursue the hidden detrimental effects rather than the benefits.

“If something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” he says with a smile.

Matthew-Wilson has recently completed a four-year report of his findings, entitled The Emperor’s New Car. His research looks into the idea that in reality, rather than being a way toward environmental sustainability, electric cars may in fact be a detrimental idea.

“When we first started the research for the report, we were skeptical. The more we researched electric cars, the more we became convinced that the public was simply being conned,” he says.

What worries Matthew-Wilson is that the increased demand for electricity as a result of charging the vehicles will increase a reliance on coal – a major source of carbon production.

“The car industry is selling a false image of efficient, environmentally-friendly electric cars powered by ‘green’ energy. In reality, electric cars often aren’t very efficient and aren’t very green… the widespread introduction of electric cars will probably increase the world’s reliance on coal in order to keep up with the increased demand for electricity,” he explains.

This increase in coal reliance means something far worse. In fact, it means the exact scenario that electric vehicles are supposedly inhibiting – a possible rise in carbon emissions.

“They merely transfer the pollution from the road to the power station. Not only will electric cars not reduce emissions, they may actually increase emissions, because burning coal to make electricity to power an electric car creates more pollution than if you simply powered the same vehicle using petrol.”

Matthew-Wilson’s concerns lie with the need for sustainable power for electric vehicles, rather than with the vehicles themselves, and according to the Sustainable Energy Association (SEA) these concerns are warranted.

The SEA’s WA chairman, Professor Ray Wills, says Australia is lagging with their renewable energy usage.

“Across Australia the average use of renewable energy is around about 8 per cent,” he commented in a recent interview with ABC News.

“Renewable energy sources may be growing fast, but they’re still a tiny percentage of the world’s electricity supply and they’ll stay that way for the foreseeable future, because renewable energy sources tend to be far more expensive than fossil fuels,” Wilson says.

In the meantime, for share-car users and regular citizens like Tim Perry, embracing hybrid vehicles is a step in the right direction until the middle ground between electric power and energy consumption is found. As wholly electric vehicles are beginning to emerge in the Australian market, there is an evident need to further investigate energy sources in order to ensure electric vehicles are in fact an environmental help rather than a hindrance.

“Electric vehicles alone can’t solve the emissions problem… We need energy policies and transport policies… at the moment they’re somewhat costly and experimental but we don’t really have a choice,” says Anthony Mifsud.

But Clive Matthew-Wilson is encouraging Australia to remain skeptical. His research suggests that there is still a long way to go before electric cars are a beneficial and ‘green’ resource. He also worries that, even if renewable energy as a primary power source is achieved, the affordability will be yet another issue.

“All the evidence suggests that ‘affordable renewable energy’ is a bit like an ‘honest politician’ – possible, but not likely anytime soon,” he muses.

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