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How is owning a hybrid vehicle patriotic?

        Auto | Hybrid Cars

Image Gallery: Hybrid Cars A brand-new 2011 Chevrolet Volt rolls off the assembly line at the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck plant on Nov. 30, 2010. See more pictures of hybrid cars.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

David Sandalow made headlines in August 2010 for saying electric cars are patriotic. Sandalow, an assistant U.S. Secretary of Energy, has studied energy, foreign policy and climate change, and published books like 2008's "Freedom From Oil." He says Americans should cut gas consumption to help free the U.S. from dependence on imported oil. Cutting use of oil from any source helps fight global warming; cutting use of foreign oil has an added patriotic benefit. He and others say dependence on oil from the war-torn Persian Gulf hurts America's security. But how patriotic are hybrid cars?

In 2009, the United States used about 7.14 billion barrels of oil -- nearly one-fourth of all the oil used in the world that year. More than half of that oil was imported, and nearly half of all oil used in the U.S. goes to make gasoline [source: EIA]. Experts argue about whether the United States can stop using foreign oil. But Sandalow and others say that it's important to try. Cutting gasoline use would be a big step.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), co-author of the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act, wrote in summer 2010 about the environmental damage of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the high costs of imported oil [source: Grist]. His bill, which included about $20 billion for developing fuel-efficient vehicles, passed in the House of Representatives in June 2009 but died in the Senate in 2010.

Sandalow drives a Toyota Prius, but not the standard gas-electric hybrid. He spent $9,000 to convert his Prius so he can recharge the battery by plugging it into an electrical outlet. He gets about 80 miles per gallon (34 kilometers per liter), compared to a standard Prius, which uses gas when accelerating and at high speeds, and gets about 50 miles per gallon (21 kilometers per liter) [source: Thomas].

The U.S. Department of Energy promotes the use of plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars. Sandalow's boss, Energy Secretary and Nobel laureate Steven Chu, quotes hockey star Wayne Gretzky: "Skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where the puck is" [source: RTD]. In other words, Chu thinks plug-ins and electrics are the future of the auto industry.

Does that mean standard hybrids, after only about a decade of general use, are no longer patriotic? Auto industry analyst Brad Berman doesn't think so. Electric cars and plug-in hybrids cut oil dependence even more, he says, but gas-electric hybrids often use less gas than conventional cars. Electrics and plug-ins are expensive; the Chevy Volt costs about $41,000. But prices of gas-electric hybrids are coming down. People on budgets who want to do their part for their country can help by buying them [source: Berman].

For more information on eco-friendly vehicles, cruise over to the links on the next page.