By Lisa Truesdale

Turning off lights when not in use. Tossing glass and plastic in the recycling bin instead of the trash. Taking reusable bags to the grocery store.

While many eco-conscious choices like these are relatively free, others, sadly, are not. Products like energy-efficient light bulbs, sustainable flooring (such as bamboo or cork) and organic-cotton towels often cost a little more than their conventional counterparts. But these options all help save money—and the Earth—in the long run. It’s the same with hybrid cars.

“They’re priced a little higher, but it’s worth it,” says Scott Thorne, a Longmont resident who has been driving his 2007 Ford Escape Hybrid daily for nearly eight years. “Our hybrid gets great gas mileage, and we also got a tax credit the year we bought it, so we started saving money right away.”

A hybrid is a low-emissions vehicle (LEV) because it runs on a mix of gasoline and electricity. Though it has a standard gas tank like a conventional gas-powered car, it also has an electric motor with batteries that recharge as you drive. When more “oomph” is needed, like when accelerating or going up a hill, the gas-powered engine takes over. But if you’re driving at slower speeds—say, 35 miles per hour or less—the vehicle is powered solely by electricity and therefore uses less gas and sends fewer emissions into the atmosphere. Popular hybrid models include the Toyota Prius series, the Honda Civic Hybrid, the Ford Fusion Hybrid and the Infiniti
Q50 Hybrid.

David Hooson, who taught high-school shop for 20 years back East, is now the “resident hybrid specialist” at Larry H. Miller Toyota in Boulder, where hybrids make up around a third of the dealership’s sales. “After I bought a Prius in 2005 and fell in love with it, I decided I wanted to sell Priuses to help better the world. I don’t feel like a salesman, though; I think I’m just trying to be a good teacher, educating people about why these cars are better for their wallet and better for the Earth.”

Boulder County is an ideal place for Hooson to do his “teaching,” with the Denver-metro area ranking second only behind San Francisco in most “green” cars on the road per capita. The Fischer family of Niwot likely skews Boulder County’s rating a little, because they currently have three residents in their house and three hybrids.

“I drive a Prius, and I regularly get more than 50 miles per gallon,” Lynn Fischer says. “My daughter Shannon doesn’t like the Prius’ hatchback look, so she has a Prius-C, which she calls her ‘baby Prius.’ My husband, Fritz, has a hybrid, too—a Lexus CT200h. We’re the ‘hybrid family’ and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

eco-car-graphicElizabeth Frame, a salesperson at Frontier Honda in Longmont, appreciates the fact that Colorado buyers are so hybrid-savvy. “Most clients coming in to purchase a hybrid car are already well-educated and informed about the many advantages of owning one,” she explains. “I enjoy talking with them about the newest technologies and the environmental issues. As the Honda marketing message says, ‘We all benefit from vehicles that respect our planet.’”

If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is—but not in the case of hybrid cars. The pros greatly outweigh the cons: You’re helping the environment because your vehicle is spewing less harmful stuff into the air, and you’re saving gas money. (In fact, according to Hooson, hybrid sales naturally increase when the price of gas goes up.) While hybrid cars were once considered to be “gutless,” newer models generally have just as much pick-up as most conventional cars.

On the subject of cons, Thorne says he can think of only two, and they’re relatively minor: “I can’t add a towing package, and when the gas engine shuts off and the electric comes on, the engine is so quiet. I have to be careful so I don’t startle pedestrians.”

LEV or ZEV?

Some eco-conscious car owners choose to go a step further—an all-electric car. An electric car is a ZEV, or zero-emissions vehicle, because it uses no gas at all. Electric cars have to be plugged in—usually to a standard 120-volt household outlet, thank goodness—and it normally takes between eight and 12 hours for the battery to fully charge, depending on the vehicle model.

Electric cars are even more ecologically responsible than hybrids, and using alternative energy like wind or solar to power them multiplies the environmental benefits. Popular all-electric models include the Nissan Leaf, the Tesla Roadster and Smart cars.

Unlike hybrids, all-electric vehicles do not recharge while driving; the car moves only as long as the charge lasts, which can be anywhere from 30 to 80 miles, depending on the model. But a 40-mile range is more than enough for Trisa Baxter, a Longmont resident who drives her retro-looking light-blue Comuta-Car a few miles to work on days when the weather isn’t conducive to riding her bike. The Comuta-Car and two other models of CitiCars were produced by Sebring-Vanguard in the late 1970s and remained the most popular all-electric car in the U.S. until the Tesla Roadster overtook them in 2011.

Baxter has had her Comuta-Car, which she affectionately refers to as “Sparky,” for more than 10 years. “I would love to drive it more, but its top speed is only about 35 miles per hour, and the roads are just too fast for it these days.” (Its design was inspired by a golf cart, after all.)

[quote]I drive a Prius, and I regularly get more than 50 miles per gallon[/quote]

Speed isn’t a problem for more updated models like the Tesla Roadster, which can go from zero to 60 in under 4 seconds, or the Nissan Leaf, which can easily top 90 mph on the highway. The main drawback of these cars is their range; what happens if you unexpectedly travel farther than you planned and you run out of power?

As all-electric vehicles become more popular, the network of public charging stations is growing (Boulder offers them at city recreation centers), and some employers have begun offering charging sites at work. There are even online sites and smartphone apps that allow users to find a charging station near them.

To address the limited-range issue of electric cars, manufacturers have started producing vehicles (like the BMW i3 and the Chevy Volt) that are classified as electric but have the 300-plus-mile range of a hybrid. These cars, often called plug-ins or plug-in hybrids, have an onboard gas-powered generator, but the gas in the tank doesn’t help to propel the car like with a hybrid; it’s used to provide additional electricity to the electric motor.

The Chevy Volt, for instance, can travel up to 380 miles on a full charge and a full tank. The first 38 miles or so of any outing are electric-powered on a full charge, so if you don’t drive longer distances than that, the gas-powered generator won’t kick in and Chevy estimates that you could then go up to 900 miles on a single tank of gas.

If you’re interested in the possibility of owning a hybrid or electric car but still need convincing, just talk to people who already drive one. Hooson says, “Owning a hybrid is addictive. Once you own one, you’ll never go back.”