Prius easily beats Hummer in life-cycle energy use, “Dust to Dust” report has no basis in fact

hummer-prius.jpgA study came out recently claiming to prove a Hummer has lower lifecycle energy use than a Prius. Because the result was so obviously bogus — and in sharp contradiction with every other major lifecycle analysis ever done — I didn’t spend time debunking it.

But it has made it into the comments of this blog and continues to echo around the internet and the authors keep updating and defending it. A couple of good debunking studies — by the Pacific Institute and by Rocky Mountain Institute — haven’t gotten much attention according to Technorati, so let me throw in my two cents.

The study’s title is revealing: Dust to Dust: The Energy Cost of New Vehicles From Concept to Disposal, The non-technical report, from CNW Marketing Research, Inc. Yes, although life-cycle energy use is probably the most complicated kind of energy analysis you can do, this 458 report is “non-technical” and by a market research company to boot.

Their website says the report “does not include issues of gigajuelles [sic!], kW hours or other unfriendly (to consumers) terms. Perhaps, in time, we will release our data in such technical terms. First, however, we will only look at the energy consumption cost.”

Wouldn’t want to confuse consumers with unfriendly technical stuff such as kilowatt-hours like those annoying electric utilities do every month. No. Let’s put everything in dollar terms so no one can reproduce our results. When you misspell gigajoules on your website — and have for a long time (try googling “gigajuelles”), you aren’t the most technical bunch.

I am mocking this report because it is the most contrived and mistake-filled study I have ever seen — by far (and that’s saying a lot since I worked for the federal government for five years). I am not certain there is an accurate calculation in the entire report. I say this without fear of contradiction because this is also the most opaque study I have ever seen — by far. I defy anyone to figure out what their methodology was.

In this post I’m just going to highlight the most inane claims — and again, they can only be treated as claims because the report omits all the underlying calculations.

Let me first give one rule of thumb. U.S. energy costs have been about 7% to 8% of GDP for most of the last two decades, but were a bit higher during the energy shocks as well as the last couple of years. The Energy Information Administration projects energy costs will be 5.3% of GDP in 2030. As a rough estimate, then, you can figure the dollar value of energy embedded in most products as 5% to 10% of their cost — and that includes all the energy consumed in the product life-cycle, such as manufacturing and shipping .

The CNW study makes the astonishing claim that the Prius has life-cycle energy costs of $3.25 per mile (of which its on-road gasoline consumption is only $0.075 [yes, 7.5 cents] , whereas a Hummer H3 has an energy cost per mile of $1.95 (of which $0.187 is direct fuel consumption). I kid you not.

In direct contradiction with essentially every other life-cycle study ever done, in which direct fuel consumption is typically 70% to 90% of a vehicle’s life-cycle energy use (see here), CNW finds it comprises about 2% to 10%!

This range of energy costs per mile leads to one obvious question about CNW’s results, which many people have raised. Let me quote one Roy W. Spencer — yes, the global warming denyer — from the Report’s Appendix:

Question: I was wondering, how can a car that costs the consumer, say, $20,000 new and uses around $15,000 in fuel over a 100,000 mile lifetime end up having a total energy cost of, say, $250,000 ($2.50 per mile)? (Since this is way more than the consumer has paid, …which is more like $35,000.) If $250,000 really was the true energy cost, wouldn’’t a car be much more expensive to the buyer than it is now?

Duh! Or maybe, Doh! Indeed, since, as noted, embedded life-cycle energy costs are typically 5% to 10% of a product’s total life-cycle costs, CNW’s study implies that the total ownership cost of a family car is, roughly, $2.5 to $5.0 million — or about $400,000 to $800,000 a year! You never knew you were so rich.

How could CNW possibly come up with such absurd results? I can’t say for sure since the report omits any methodology, but CNW’s unbelievable answer to Spencer contains some clues:

Roy… Excellent question and point.

If an automobile lived in a capsule, if there were no other energy requirements for supporting the infrastructure of automotive driving, you are correct. A consumer would be asked to pay literally 10s of thousands of dollars for a vehicle.

But cars live in an infrastructure including support services (oil changes, for example) and disposal industries.

That added cost per mile is borne by other industries and generate profits for those industries. For example, recycling (many) of the parts of a vehicle is highly energy intense. Fortunately, those costs are borne by secondary industries because they are willing to pay in excess of the cost for the resulting components or recycled material.

Honest to goodness that is their entire answer (see pages 335 and 336). I’ll bet you never knew those oil changes were so expensive and so energy-intensive — next time, get the service plan! Do they really mean to suggest that the energy consumed by servicing your car is comparable to the energy consumed running it? Yes. Seriously. In fact, they say the lifetime gasoline consumption for a Prius comes to around $8,000 but the energy cost from repair and maintenance is $22,000!

[You may wonder how CNW makes such an obvious blunder. I think the mistake they made is assuming the energy cost is equal to the entire lifetime cost of repair and maintenance, rather than say 5% of it. But don’t quote me on that–their methodology is unfathomable.]

The recycling claim is even more stunning. Most people would say that in a lifecycle analysis, you should reward a company for recyclable parts. That is, you should probably subtract the embedded energy in recyclable parts, since such parts avoid the need to manufacture new parts in another car. The study even notes “Current hybrids have components that are capable of being recycled in a higher proportion of their total social energy costs than non-hybrid models.”

So does a hybrid in fact benefit from being more recyclable? Of course, not, says CNW:

In all, while the industry as a whole the cost of recycling [sic] is about $119,000 per vehicle, hybrids cost more than $140,000 per vehicle to recycle.

I know you must by now be thinking I’m making this up. No one on the face of this earth — not even the most benighted analyst desperately trying to make hybrids look bad — could possibly believe this. Let me quote further (page 235):

How can a vehicle costing $30,000 generate $140,000 in recyclables?

Remember that we are discussing energy usage, not the cost of the vehicle. Over time, for instance, the vehicle will sell on average of five times in its lifetime, each time at a portion of its original cost but generally bringing the lifetime expenditure for the vehicle into the two to four times original cost range depending on desirability and demand.

Seriously. It appears–and again, I’m trying to take this nonsense at face value–somehow the resale cost of a used car is being counted fully as part of its life-cycle energy cost under the recycling category. Even though the resale cost has no connection to energy use at all. What is scary is CNW really seems to believe this claptrap. They continue:

We are also discussing energy consumption, not costs. That $140,000 in recyclable energy costs will generate $160,000 to $220,000 in net revenue to recyclers. Additionally, the support industries to recyclers expend significant energy for the production and maintenance of necessary recycling equipment. Government agencies and those who remanufacture recycled material into other products similarly expend significant quantities of energy in support of the recycling of a single car.

The reason we include all of this into the vehicle’s social energy cost is simple: As with research and development, we cannot be certain that recycled material will ever get into secondary products.

Has your head exploded yet? What could they possibly mean “$140,000 in recyclable energy costs will generate $160,000 to $220,000 in net revenue to recyclers”??? Does the $140,000 come from the used car buyers or just the recyclers? How could a $30,000 car generate $160,000 to $220,000 in net revenue to recyclers? Who could believe such a thing?

Even their own internal logic is illogical. They are including this phantasmagorical $140,000 because “we cannot be certain that recycled material will ever get into secondary products.” This implies someone is paying that money for no reason whatsoever. They are spending $140,000 in recyclable energy costs, but then aren’t recycling. Who are these recyclers? Donald Trump?

“Government agencies similarly expend significant quantities of energy in support of the recycling of a single car.” I feel like John McEnroe: “You cannot be serious!”

If you want to see how discussion of other life-cycle energy model read this.

As for CNW, the only explanation I can come up for this absurdity piled on top of absurdity is that the marketing firm is putting on an elaborate hoax, seeing how many reputable news organizations repeat these laughable numbers without bothering to check the original study to see that they have no basis whatsoever in fact. After all, no one could believe all this. Could they?

25 Responses to Prius easily beats Hummer in life-cycle energy use, “Dust to Dust” report has no basis in fact

  1. Cliff says:

    “…no one could believe all this. Could they?”

    Therein lies the problem.

  2. Paul K says:

    $140,000 in recyclable energy costs will generate $160,000 to $220,000 in net revenue to recyclers”
    Can’t wait to show this to boys at the local junkyard.

  3. Shannon says:

    I am sure that the Hummer also saves greenhouse gas emissions because the it will break down a lot sooner from all of the offroading than the Prius, which, trust me, is not a good vehicle for offroading AT ALL.

  4. Somender says:

    There are technologies being ignored by Big Auto that actually could bring a Hummer’s operation costs in line with a Prius’

    A simple aftermarket modification called a ‘Groove’ reduces fuel use, oil waste and emissions simply by increasing the turbulence inside the combustion cylinder.

  5. blt says:

    Hard to believe that anyone believes this, but they do in Idaho. (and check out what’s on (Larry) Craig’s list)

  6. Earl Killian says:

    Thank you Joe for posting your analysis and that of PI and RMI. To add to the list, there is also this page:
    which is less detailed than the above, but perhaps more accessible for some.

  7. Tom says:

    I’m less concerned about the life-cycle energy use of a Prius than I am about the much larger amounts of energy it will take to build and power hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the darlings of the uninformed. And don’t forget the quantities of dihydrogen monoxide that will be spewed into the environment – by design – that doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

  8. Jerry says:

    The recycling of the nickel used in the NiMh battery is currently not practical. However, if the economics are behind them, people will usually find a way. See article below.

  9. climatecriminal says:

    Regarding Prius offroading. There is often made a claim that SUVs are all used for offroading is patently ridiculous. Here in Surrey in the UK, there are a significant number of offroad vehicles. The majority of which do as much offroading as a Prius. This will comprise visiting the local supermarket and the local school-run, which often involved driving partially onto the side walk. I’ve done more offroading than many of these SUVs, and I’ve never owned or driven anything but two-wheel drive cars.

  10. climatecriminal says:

    Perhaps Tom does not know that DiHydrogen Monoxide is found in every living thing and in large quantities in the ocean, most soils, the polar ice and the atmosphere. It is of course harmless, because it’s common name is water!

  11. youdontgetit says:

    the vast majority of people purchase big cars, trucks and SUV’s for ROOM, not for off roading. SUV’s carry ALOT more ‘stuff’ than small fuel efficient cars. So now let’s get off the ‘most people who buy SUV’s don’t even take them off road’ ignorance kick. I drive a crew cab truck, and use 3/4 of the crew cab 100% of the time it’s driven. The bed only gets used occasionally, but still it’s hard to beat when I need it.

  12. Bruce says:

    In response to Jerry regarding the recycling of nickel in NiMH batteries, I was told years ago by Inmetco ( that before Toyota began marketing the Prius in North America,Toyota came to them to reassure itself that Prius batteries could be recycled. The answer for Prius batteries (and for all nickel chemistry batteries – see Rechargeable Battery Recycling Coalition: is yes.

    The Prius battery contains about 10 kilos of nickel which means that at end-of-life (currently guaranteed for 8 years; Honda guarantees its batteries for 10 years; Toyota plans an expected average lifetime of 12 years) the nickel will, at current prices of $25,000/tonne, have a positive economic value. The recyclers will pay to take the battery. The nickel/nickel iron that is produced will usually be sold to the stainless steel industry.

    The NiMH battery will be replaced in new cars in a few years by a lithium chemistry battery of some sort (there are many varieties) because they have higher energy density and thus less volume and less weight for their function. The (modest) downside will be a lower end-of-life value.

  13. Chris says:

    “That $140,000 in recyclable energy costs will generate $160,000 to $220,000 in net revenue to recyclers.”
    With a new value of $20,000, this means that the Prius is worth:
    Between $160,000/$20,000 to $220,000 $20,000 i.e. 8 to 11 times its original purchase prise as scrap! Idle thought, wouldn’t this make the Prius non-profit making for Toyota?

    Presumably, scrap dealers are investing in Prius’ and making a killing in the scrap value! Or to put it another way, is this reflected in the sales figures, Prius must be flying off the shelves!

    Erm – I don’t think so. Clearly, CNW’s report Dust to Dust: The Energy Cost of New Vehicles From Concept to Disposal, The non-technical report, wasn’t checked for errors, and it seems it was written by talented idiots.

  14. Climate Criminal says:

    Hopefully, the morons and knuckleheads who feel the need to drive SUVs like the Hummer will now be feeling the pinch! Yes in the UK we have such idiots too! But with gasoline costing £1.25 a litre, that’s $10.06 per gallon US, they won’t be driving far. It will cost them $321.91 to fill up!

  15. Sam K says:

    The costs mentioned in the report are not the actual costs to anyones wallet, but the environmental costs/impact of all the energy and materials used to design, make and run etc. the vehicle from when someone first had the initial idea for the vehicle to when it is scrapped.

  16. Sam K says:

    A lot of the comments and reviws I’ve seen seem to have missed this fact.
    They converted this to dollars because everyone understands them and they are more tangable than joules and Kw etc.

  17. JimF says:

    i don’t want to defend the original study, because I don’t know the calculations taht went into it, but i believe commenter SamK is correct. The attack here misunderstands what the study’s authors were tring to do, calculate the entire environmental impact, not the cost/ economic impact. Again, i’m not saying they did it correctly, and their numbers looks suspect, but this attack seems to miss the point.

  18. Thuldai says:

    That might shed some light on their methodology.

    So they might assume that any economic activity causes environmental damage, and they even find a fixed ratio for it.

    In that case the main reason (as far as I understand) that a Hummer is “more ecological” than a Prius is that it has to be largely discarded after its use while the nicely recylable Prius causes more economic activity after its lifespan and (so they conclude) more environmental damage.

    So according to the report we then should rather force Prius users (and any car for that matter) NOT to recycle their old vehicles as hence economic activity is avoided and the world a better place.

    Now that’s still flawed and now we even know why.

  19. these are the greenest things that are changing the world and make the way we see how we can change the world with this topics and discussions, this is just really great!

  20. Marion Delgado says:

    Sam K and Jim F do what market fundamentalists always do – mistake their GDP mystifications and Austrian economic theocratic and philosophical convention reports for facts and events in the real world.

    They’re both wrong. Joe Romm’s attack here is directly to the point of the study, and directly refutes it. They aren’t arguing at cross purposes. The study, Sam, and Jim are irretrievably wrong. The study in every way, and by orders of magnitude. Jim and Sam by their misunderstanding of every single point argued in the post. He directly, and repeatedly, answered the ECONOMIC claims. So did many commenters.

    It’s not that the numbers are suspect, it’s that the whole thing is bullshit, reminiscent of Ben Wattenberg or John Stossel or John Fund or Julian Simon or Bjorn Lomborg – fake contrarianism for attention – everyone enjoys “everything you know is wrong” or “amazingly, it turns out that …” stories.

    RFK’s GDP speech is still as relevant as it was in 1968, I think. CNW, but also Sam and Jim are promoting the paradigm that teaches that if 2 men toss a bag of money to each other across a room all day, the GDP is going up and that, since economic activity in the market always reflects net advantage to the consumer, means that it has to be good for the majority, good for the environment, etc.

  21. OG says:

    As a moron and knucklehead who has not one but 2 SUVs (and I live in the UK so have the high fuel prices to contend with) this article doesn’t make me rethink anything at all. My SUVs are workhorses – they earn their keep. There is currently no hybrid or alternative fuel vehicle that will allow me to do so much as I can do with the current 17 yr old SUVs I already have. The Lexus hybrid SUV has no real off-road capabilities so isn’t a practical solution. My Land Rover Defender is a go anywhere camper, rescue and recovery vehicle, people carrier and commuting vehicle rolled into one. At the moment there is no comparably capable and versatile vehicle that is economically viable and available.

  22. Scott says:

    Thanks for your debunking of this widespread hoax report. I’m curious as to how the lifecycle emissions (including production ect.) of the prius compares to a regular car with out a large battery, but with good gas milage, like a honda civic. Any good analyses you can reccomend?

  23. Brian says:

    Thanks for taking the time to try and figure out what CNW was thinking when they wrote that truely amazing report (Dust to Dustbin). Has anyone ever calculated how much total Nickle is in a Prius and Hummer (or any other car in the CNW report)? It seems likely that the Hummer might actually have more TOTAL nickle, by mass, in its steel and other components than the Prius does. Remember that the Prius generation II battery is a total of 45 kg so the total Nickle in it must be less than that… (10 kg?). Thanks in advance.

  24. john says:

    Never read such nonsense – seems the author(s) relate energy to cost of gasoline at the bowser. Coal for steel, electricity for aluminium production and government subsidies do not relate to the cost of energy at the bowser. Can’t we get someone technical to write techncial articles. People appear to want to read articles that justify their choice of car. Sad really