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The annual Charlotte Auto Show goes green(ish)

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After totaling my Ford Focus last year, I decided to vote "green" with my dollars. I sought out an American-made hybrid, a 2011 Ford Fusion — green, naturally — and insisted the seats be made with recycled plastic fabric. Patting myself on the back for doing something good for the economy and the environment, I was set. Or so I thought. It turns out my new car was made in Mexico and might not be so green, after all. For starters, the gas mileage is just alright.

I'm not the only one who's gone ga-ga over green. The annual Charlotte Auto Show, beginning Nov. 17, is all about electric and hybrid cars this year, according to organizer Dick Lewis. Every participating automobile manufacturer will bring their models to the Charlotte Convention Center, because the vehicles are hot and consumers are once again looking to buy sippers rather than guzzlers. "The market has been suppressed with the recession," Lewis says, "but what's happening now is that people are beginning to buy cars because of fuel costs or because their old ones are starting to wear out."

Not everyone is totally sold on the environmental benefits of so-called green cars, which do not depend so much on fossil fuels, but are far from squeaky clean. Hybrids use nickel metal hydride and lithium ion batteries, which are more toxic than a conventional car's lead acid or nickel cadmium batteries — and may even be deadly. (A Chevy Volt, which uses a lithium-ion battery, exploded in a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash test last week.) Of course, hybrids still use gas. Full-blown electric cars have limited range, take hours to charge and may freak out the electrical grid. And in the Carolinas, that grid courses with electricity generated in nuclear plants or coal-fired plants that get their coal through mountaintop removal. So, forget car manufacturers' claims about electric cars having "zero emissions." The emissions just don't come out of the tailpipe.

"Most of the science-based criticisms of electric cars and the generation of electricity needed to run them are true," says author Brian Dunning, who wrote Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena and hosts a weekly science podcast at Skeptoid.com. "Everything has an environmental impact, and there absolutely are cases where the entire chain — from building the car and its battery, to using dirty sources to generate its electricity, to disposing of its battery — is significantly worse than simply keeping your old gas-powered car."

Still, after a slip in the auto market beginning in 2007, Lewis says the industry is expecting a positive turnaround in the next couple of years. One car that has people buzzing is the Nissan Leaf (note the name), an all-electric plug-in that has optional solar panels to charge the car's second battery, used for accessories. It's a cute car — quiet and small, but with plenty of headroom. It has a lot of the popular space-age features, too, like rearview cameras, GPS, keyless entry and ignition. What it doesn't have is range.

A full charge can take you about 100 miles in the Leaf, depending on driving conditions and habits. That leads to another consideration with electric cars: Where do you plug them in? While the cars can be charged using an ordinary 120-volt plug, that takes about 20 hours. "Trickle charging," or plugging in along your route, can keep you going on a trip. It takes about seven hours to charge the battery using a 220-volt charging station, like the ones Duke Energy offers customers through its "Charge Carolinas" pilot program. Either way, it costs less than $3 to fully charge the battery at current electricity rates.

Charging stations run about $2,000, but Duke customers can use one for free for two years, if they are willing to allow the company to remote-access information on their charging habits and impact on the electrical grid. After the two-year pilot program, customers may buy the charging station for $250. The "Charge Carolinas" program is currently on hiatus, however, pending an investigation into the cause of a fire that destroyed a home in Mooresville. The residents were among the 125 enrolled in the program. Since the fire, Duke has asked customers to stop using the chargers temporarily.

"We're working with manufacturers early," says Duke spokesperson Paige Layne. She says the company will display its charging station at the auto show along with two electric cars — a vintage electric from 1918 alongside a $100,000 Tesla Roadster. "We've got lots of interest in the vehicles," she says, adding that the company is trying to determine "what customers expect from their charging experience and what type of wear and tear will occur on the grid."

With exploding cars and fire investigations underway, there's still plenty of room for improvement in the 'green' car market. Skeptics like Dunning highlight obvious concerns, but he's not completely against the auto industry's push toward greener cars. "These are the necessary stepping stones that we must cross in order to learn the lessons that will eventually get us to a future where transportation is truly cheap and clean," he says.

The hybrid market got its start in 1997 with the Toyota Prius, now in its third generation and in the process of becoming its own brand; four models now sport the Prius label. Fourteen years later, the market is flooded with green-ish auto options. The starting price range for most of the cars, many of which must be special ordered, hovers around $25,000.

For those not ready to experiment with their home's electrical systems or drive around on battery power, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers tips for conserving fuel in traditional cars: Look for aerodynamic, smaller cars; use properly inflated, low-rolling resistance tires; avoid idling; forget warming your engine (newer cars don't need warm-up time); don't use premium fuel or fuel additives (you probably don't need to); turn off the air conditioner; and choose a light-colored car. That's right — a Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division study concluded that lighter-colored cars are 2 percent more fuel-efficient because they don't get as hot in the sun, thus requiring less energy to cool.

Even if you enjoy fondling green vehicles at the auto show, there's no need to feel pressured into buying one. As Dunning wrote in a June 2010 blog for Skeptic magazine, "It almost never makes sense to buy a new car."

The Carolina Auto Show runs Nov. 17 to Nov. 20 at the Charlotte Convention Center. $10 for adults, free for children under 12. www.CharlotteAutoShow.com.

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