Which is better for the environment, electric vehicles or hybrids? We already know either one is better than a combustion engine car, but there are environmental as well as energy costs associated with these cars, and how you power a car can matter as much as what kind of car it is. Here’s how to figure out whether a hybrid or EV is cleaner for the environment.

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What goes into an EV?

EVs are just like traditional cars, except for the powertrain or the part of the car that makes it go. Then, switch out an engine and transmission for an electric motor and a system that brings the power to the wheels. Sometimes that looks like one motor and a giant battery pack under the car floor. Other times, it is in-wheel motors on each side to drive the wheels.

Related: How does the new EV tax credit affect everyone?

EVs use batteries that are enormous and last about 10 years. This means that when you buy an EV, you need to calculate the cost of replacing the battery if you buy it used or think about the waste involved in ditching a car when the expensive battery dies. Batteries use heavy metals that can pollute landfills. If your car company allows you to trade in a vehicle and give your car a second life, that is more sustainable. Buying an EV new or very gently used will allow you to get the most out of a battery pack before worrying about creating pollution at the end of the vehicle’s life cycle.

Two Teslas parked outside a gray building

How do hybrids work?

Hybrids combine a traditional gas engine with an EV motor to conserve fuel. Most hybrids switch back and forth automatically from all-electric mode to using the gas engine as a backup for longer drives. But some hybrids are called parallel hybrids or mild hybrids. They use the EV system for some power while using the engine at all times. Therefore, they drive the car in parallel with the EV system. This still saves you fuel and reduces emissions.

Hybrids are a lot closer to traditional cars or trucks. If your goal is to inch toward being more sustainable or save money on fuel, this is an easy option to be more sustainable. Many of the mild hybrids don’t even plug in. They just recharge the battery from running the engine or capturing energy from braking.

The recent Jeep Wrangler hybrid, for example, has auto start-stop to save energy at stoplights while idling. It also uses regenerative braking, gets better gas mileage while offering a rugged suspension for rough roads and never needs to be plugged in. Hybrids like this are a great choice for people living in rural areas. The heavier vehicle can handle long rural commutes and dirt roads. On the other hand, many EVs are super low to the ground and have smooth tires to be aerodynamic, which don’t work well on rough or slippery roads.

Electric vehicle being charged

How you charge your EV or hybrid matters

If your hybrid or EV is a plug-in (PHEV, PEV) you can charge it one of the following ways:

1. A rapid charging station

2. A wall socket at home or work

3. On the go

Most hybrids or EVs recover some energy from braking. A few have solar panels on the roof. This means that depending on the car, you could charge while you drive, extending your range before plugging in. A few cars charge exclusively this way, but that’s rare. Whether you’re buying a hybrid or EV, you should be looking at the type of charging options for your vehicle, the cost in electricity to your house or to charge at a charging station and the range you need the car to run before charging, such as your full commute.

The thing is, even when you have all of this sorted, your hybrid or electric vehicle can still produce emissions by charging on dirty energy. Energy companies are slowly edging power production away from dirty coal to clean energy production. However, this is still a minority percentage of where your power is coming from on the grid. For example, right now, your power company probably produces 15-40% of your energy used at home from clean energy sources. If you want your hybrid or EV to be fully clean you need to think of the following factors:

1. Can you run your hybrid in electric mode all the time?

2. Can you charge using clean energy?

The best ways to do this are to research how far your hybrid can run on full electric mode before switching to the engine as a backup and to make sure you sign up for as much clean energy as you can get from your energy company. Meanwhile, install solar panels or a geothermal system at home to charge your car on all clean energy.

Some of these options are still quite expensive, so do your homework before committing to the vehicle that is cleanest. If you can run a hybrid in all-electric mode all the time while having the engine as a backup for longer drives, that might be the cleanest option you can afford. It depends on your situation.

Is a hybrid or EV right for you?

A hybrid still has a place in this world as we transition from combustion engines to all-electric. The best things a combustion engine can do are serve as a backup for driving long distances (when you might not be able to charge your EV) and to offer more torque or power for pulling heavy loads. These will be temporary problems, however, as the energy industry ramps up clean energy production and car companies make more powerful EVs that are more than up to the challenge of most vehicle needs.

If you buy a hybrid, your next car or truck will probably be an EV anyway. If you buy an EV, let us know how you plan to charge it.

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