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The driving force behind energy consumption

By Alice La Pierre City of Berkeley Energy Office
Tuesday December 18, 2001

Sales for durable goods rose an amazing 12.8 percent during the month of October 2001, the largest-ever increase in sales in U.S. history. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Consumer Index Report,( the vast majority of those purchases (more than 9 percent, or $15.3 billion) were the sale of cars and trucks. The bulk of those sales were for pick-up trucks and sport utility vehicles, or SUVs. 

Heavy advertising campaigns equating the purchase of a new truck or SUV with patriotism, combined with interest-free financing helped to spur record sales. However, the impact of these vehicles on the environment has yet to be calculated. 

The average SUV gets 17.5 miles-per-gallon (averaged between all makes and models’ city and highway driving, according to the U.S. Department of Energy – see http://www.fueleconomy. gov). By giving up a car that gets 25 miles per gallon, you will lose seven and one-half miles for every gallon of gas you burn. In an 18-gallon tank, that SUV will stop 135 miles short. Over the life of the vehicle, say, 100,000 miles, this will cost the owner an extra 1,714 gallons of gasoline to drive the same distance. At a conservative $1.55 per gallon, that’s more than a year’s tuition at UC Berkeley. 

It should also be noted that burning those 1,714 gallons of gasoline will produce more than 17 tons of greenhouse gasses, which contribute to global warming. The resultant air pollution will contribute to the destruction of the ozone, and to an increase in diseases related to increased vehicle emissions, such as asthma and cancer. And that is assuming the vehicle’s mileage doesn’t decline as it ages. 

Is there a better way to buy a new, and perhaps more reliable vehicle than to purchase a vehicle with so many downsides? New passenger vehicles have just as many safety features, and get better mileage than SUVs and trucks. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for passenger cars, currently set at 27.5 mpg, has not been increased since the 1986 model year, but there are Congressional efforts aimed at increasing the standard to around 40 mpg. To find out how much money you’d save by getting 40 mpg over your existing rate, go to the Sierra Club’s web site and perform the calculation. Increased mileage improves the air we all breathe, and will save you thousands of dollars during the life of the vehicle.  

Hybrid vehicles are a realistic option, and are now available from several manufacturers. These vehicles use a combination of gas and electricity – when the electric batteries need charging, the gasoline motor takes over to run the vehicle and charge the batteries. Once the batteries are charged, the gasoline engine switches off, allowing the electric motor to take over again. At this time, there are no hybrid vehicles that allow the user to plug in the car and charge the batteries using household current or solar energy. 

Other alternative fuel vehicles include the fuel cell vehicle. Fuel cells are powered by hydrogen, and are even more efficient than electric hybrid vehicles. However, hydrogen is extremely flammable – the flame from burning hydrogen is ultraviolet light and invisible to the eye. Many details still need to be worked out to make it safe for the consumer, but progress is being made. Recently, a German scientist developed a method for creating hydrogen on board in small amounts, eliminating some of the dangers of carrying large quantities of hydrogen. (See for details.) 

If you are in need of a vehicle, there is an easy way to compare mileage for all makes and models of cars from 1986 and newer. The Department of Energy has teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency and created a web site ( that will let you compare mileage in all categories of cars and trucks. This is especially handy when considering purchasing a used vehicle – many older vehicles, such as the1994 Honda Civic, get better mileage than new vehicles (the 1994 Civic gets 40 mpg in the city, 47 on the highway.) 

Car sharing programs in the Bay Area offer the convenience of driving a new car without the hassle of ownership. Using a car-share program means you don’t have to pay for gasoline or oil, monthly car payments or insurance payments. You only pay for the time (about $2.50 per hour) and mileage (about $0.45 per mile) you put on the vehicle, plus a small monthly fee ($10.00 currently) and a refundable deposit of $300.00. Contact City Car Share at for more information on car sharing programs in the East Bay. 

An alternative to purchasing a new vehicle is to have your old one tuned up and maintained to perform better, and increase its mileage. The amount of embodied energy (energy used to manufacture a product) is considerable in a new car or truck, so not purchasing one until you actually need a new one may be the best way to save money and energy.  

Public transportation is a great option, offering a way to relax and read while commuting instead of sitting in traffic jams, and the cost and availability of parking at your destination. 

By far, the best option is to bicycle or walk when you can while running errands or commuting. It’s great exercise (save on those health club fees), lets you get to know your neighborhood, and helps reduce your stress levels, blood pressure and increase metabolism. For every gallon of gasoline you save by walking or bicycling, twenty pounds of atmospheric pollution is saved. 


For more information on energy and transportation, visit the City of Berkeley’s Energy Office Web site at