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Chevrolet Volt. Sales of hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles are currently at all-time highs.

General Motors

The Natural Resources Defense Council, headquartered in New York, has declared that 2012 is "Green Car Year," in other words the best year ever for environmentally friendly cars.

The powerful environmental research and lobby group is well known in Canada for its opposition to the Keystone pipeline and "dirty oil" from Alberta. The NRDC was founded in the early days of the environmental movement in 1970 and is a very influential advocate for environmental protection.

They have two main reasons for calling 2012 the most successful year ever for green cars:

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The average fuel economy for new cars has never been better.

Sales of hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles are currently at all-time highs. The NRDC traces it back to the Energy Independence and Security Act, passed during the Bush administration in 2007.

Average fuel economy was 21 miles per gallon in 2007 and new regulations forced it upward to 23.5 mpg in 2012. It doesn't sound like a lot of improvement, but the report says it has eliminated the need for more than two billion gallons of fuel a year or roughly $8-billion worth. With "harmonized" regulations, improvements in automotive technology automatically reach Canada as well.

Since 2009, the number of hybrid models sold in the U.S. market has nearly doubled, bringing the 2012 total up to 41; 2012 also marked the second year for mass-marketed plug-in EVs – including the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt. Neither of those vehicles have exactly been sales successes due to the high cost and limited range of their lithium-ion battery packs. However, neither company is throwing in the towel. Nissan has announced they're cutting the price and increasing the range of their all-electric Leaf and GM. is bringing out a smaller, cheaper plug-in plus gas engine car based on the Volt's technology.

The big problem, as everyone knows, is the cost, capacity and charging time of lithium-ion batteries. The battery pack in the Volt, for example, costs more than the most expensive Corvette engine and only gives about 30 miles of electric-only range.

There is a huge amount of R&D going on to replace li-ion with something cheaper and lighter. All the auto manufacturers and their partners know they need a new recipe, especially as lithium – a rare metal – becomes more scarce and costly.

That's why it was interesting earlier this month when rumours suddenly swirled through the Internet about Toyota's progress on sodium-ion batteries. Apparently, a Toyota-sponsored research group at the Tokyo University of Science presented a technical paper that outlined their progress on sodium-ion batteries as a li-ion alternative. That seemed to confirm earlier speculation that Toyota had latched on to sodium-ion batteries for the future its electric vehicle lineup.

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The benefits of sodium-ion batteries are said to be that they operate efficiently at room temperature, are considerably lighter and use sodium rather than lithium. Lithium might be scarce, but there's no shortage of sodium – in sea water for example. Evidently the main problem so far has been in the deterioration of the batteries' storage capacity after multiple recharging.

Anyway, as the rumours flew, a Toyota spokesperson had to rush out and say that sodium-ion "is nowhere near production … it's one of many chemistries we are exploring." But if you check it out, you find numerous companies and research agencies working on sodium-ion, including the U.S Department of Energy. No one seems to promise widespread commercialization before 2020.

Yes, battery breakthroughs are likely coming, which would make all-electric vehicles far more viable than they are today. If and when that happens, that will truly be Green Car Year.

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