Geologic Column: Saving the World? Or Just Saving Money?

It all started with a reporter.

I had just signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which pledges that my university will try to decrease its carbon footprint and develop a plan to become carbon neutral, when a reporter from the local newspaper challenged my personal credentials, my knowledge of and commitment to the environment. Forget my background as an earth scientist, the many years I taught environmental geology, the summers I worked at a conservation-education camp. He wanted to know what kind of car I drove.

A Saab, I admitted — my fourth in a row, and the last, I told him, unless General Motors (which took over Saab in 1990) comes out with a Saab hybrid.

That statement appeared in print the next day. I wrote to GM to let them know the same thing. (GM never responded.) Now every time I see the reporter, he asks me whether I am driving a hybrid yet.

The question is not just about being green. AAA has been asking people who are considering purchasing a hybrid vehicle: “Are you looking at buying a hybrid to save the world, or to save money on gas?”

As a geologist, I want to do both. Yes, my first job offer in graduate school was from an oil company, but the industry crashed before I finished my interview in New Orleans, and I ended up as an academic instead.

The lease on my Saab ended in September, and the closest thing Saab has to a hybrid is a concept car, the 9-X Biohybrid, which looks very cool but is nowhere near production. So I started looking at a Toyota Prius, which is now among the top 10 best-selling cars in the United States. As anyone who has considered this car already knows, trying to buy a Prius is easier said than done. As the price of gas has risen, so has interest in vehicles that get good gas mileage. The Prius gets terrific mileage, and its strong ratings in Consumer Reports and other automotive reviews have made the brand name almost synonymous with the technology.

But the stories about the difficulties of buying a Prius these days are the stuff of legend. The Internet is full of stories about people waiting months for delivery of the car, paying thousands of dollars in premiums. The largest premium I’ve heard of, from a reputable source, is $7,000. As my husband points out, you have to drive a lot to save enough gas to cover that cost differential. A lot.

One of the issues with the Prius is that car dealers apparently earn little profit on the base model, so they load them up with options. Just try to get one without a navigation system. Call me crazy, but I am completely insulted by the idea of having a GPS navigation system in the car. I mean, I can read a map — and last I checked, those hadn’t gone extinct yet.

So, I researched other options. In the most recent Edmunds report, the Mercury Mariner was the top-rated hybrid, beating out the Prius. It even gets better mileage than the regular Toyota Camry. But my husband talked me out of it. “It’s an SUV,” he emphasized. “You can’t spend all your time jumping out to explain to people that it’s really a hybrid. It just looks bad.” He’s right. In the end, I opted for the Prius. I’d like to say I was a tough negotiator, but the Prius creates a tough environment for negotiation. My visits to the local Toyota dealership were interspersed with additional research, conversations with multiple dealers and soul searching about how important the reality of saving gas is compared with the image of saving gas. Ultimately, I got to a number that I could live with by doing the following: working through the Costco Auto Program, which saved several thousand dollars; being flexible about when I actually got the car; being flexible (i.e., not caring) about the color; and being willing to accept the navigation system.

In its October 2008 issue, Consumer Reports stated that the payback time for the Prius is just one year. This is a function of climbing gas prices, not any decrease in the price of a Prius, but I figure that I’ll save $1,870 in gas in the first year. I will reduce my petroleum consumption by 9.7 barrels and my carbon dioxide emission by 5.2 tons. The car goes far toward my short-term goal — save money — and my long-term goal — save the planet.

Driving hybrid cars is not a complete solution to the world’s energy issues, but it can help while we find more sustainable answers.

Meanwhile, I’m loving my 44.5 miles per gallon. And I’m ready for that reporter the next time I see him.

Lisa A. Rossbacher
Friday, October 31, 2008 - 13:30