Is an electric Hummer actually helpful to the climate?

US president Joe Biden takes a joy ride in an electric Hummer.
US president Joe Biden takes a joy ride in an electric Hummer.
Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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The original Hummer was the poster child for American automotive excess. The four-ton sports utility vehicle, modeled on the US Army’s Humvee deployed in the 1991 Gulf War, eked out just 10 miles per gallon. GM discontinued the behemoth in 2010 amid rising gas prices and a struggling economy.

But in December, GM revived the Hummer for the electric age. The new 4.5-ton electric vehicle (EV) runs on batteries instead of a combustion engine, but it hasn’t changed its energy-guzzling ways. The electric Hummer still, indirectly, produces plenty of carbon emissions.

Most of the world’s electricity comes from fossil fuels. (In the US, the Hummer’s biggest market, 61% of power on the grid comes from coal, oil, and natural gas.) So when an EV plugs into the grid to recharge, it contributes to fossil-fuel-burning power plants’ carbon emissions. The more energy an EV consumes, the more power plant emissions it generates. And the electric Hummer uses a lot of electricity.

If charged on an average US electric grid, the Hummer EV is still better than most internal combustion engine cars, but it still produces more carbon emissions per mile than an efficient gas-powered sedan like the Toyota Corolla (as well as every other EV on the market).

The Hummer EV plays a role in cutting carbon emissions

Even though energy-guzzlers like the Hummer EV are inefficient, they still have an important role to play in decarbonizing transportation. Americans love big cars: 20 of the 25 bestselling models in the US are SUVs or pickup trucks. But today’s electric cars are mainly sedans. A new crop of electric trucks and SUVs like Rivian’s R1T, Tesla’s Cybertruck, and the Hummer EV are more likely to attract a (disproportionately polluting) segment of the market that is less inclined to buy electric.

“If you think about the least efficient vehicles on the road, there’s a great advantage to electrifying those first,” said Alissa Kendall, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of California, Davis. “If you can get people who would otherwise be driving gas-guzzlers to drive an electric [version], that’s fantastic.”

Switching from a Hummer H1 to a Hummer EV, for example, would cut a US driver’s emissions by 69%, or 612 grams of carbon dioxide per mile. That’s nearly four times the relative climate benefit of switching from a Toyota Corolla sedan to a Tesla Model Y sedan.

Over time, these indirect emissions should approach zero as utilities switch to renewable energy sources. The recently passed US infrastructure bill aims to make electricity carbon-free by 2035. The more wind, solar, and other forms of renewable energy scale up, the cleaner EVs get. In the EU, which has a greener grid than the US, the electric Hummer would emit 10% less carbon per mile than the Toyota Corolla.

“It’s more important that you decarbonize the grid than you worry about the [efficiency of] the electric vehicles themselves,” said Kendall, who noted investing in public transit and smaller EVs is still a better investment in emission reduction than a $113,000 Hummer EV.

But as long as people are buying oversized trucks, switching to a Hummer EV can help curb carbon emissions relative to the status quo. Unless you’re already driving a Toyota Corolla.