"Everyone thinks that battery-electrics are the ultimate solution and everything else is just an intermediate step," Michalek told us. "But that's not necessarily the case. In our study, BEVs (battery electric vehicles) are worse."
That's good news for consumers who are interested in preserving the environment, but don't want to spend big bucks doing it. Because batteries still account for a large percentage of the cost of electrified vehicles, hybrids with smaller batteries would typically cost less than comparable pure electrics with larger batteries. Moreover, hybrids also offer the convenience of greater range.
To be sure, Michalek's numbers could change if electricity suppliers go to a bigger diet of renewable power in the form of wind and solar. "In a world where all our electricity is coming from cleaner sources, BEVs could be the best," Michalek said. "They might even be the cheapest. But there's no guarantee we're ever going to get there."
The irony of all this is that public policy now favors bigger batteries, largely because it's assumed that BEVs pollute less. Subsidies from the federal stimulus package give as much as $7,500 for vehicles with batteries sized at 16 kWh or larger, but $2,500 for smaller, 4 kWh packs. "The larger the pack is, the more public money we're spending on it," Michalek said. "But the truth is, bigger isn't necessarily better."