The future of electric vehicles in Australia

Liam Thomas14 June 2019
  • The future of electric vehicles is accelerating globally, particularly in China
  • An environmental impact of electric cars can include an emissions reduction
  • There is growing potential for electric vehicles in Australia 

Electric vehicles (EVs) hold the promise of cleaner air, better health, lower transportation costs and, in time, lower greenhouse gas emissions.1 Hailed as a significant contributor in the race to address climate change, just how clean are these vehicles, and what does the future for electric vehicles in Australia look like?

A cleaner alternative?

It is a common misconception that EVs are entirely clean. Just like almost all man-made objects, electric vehicles impact the environment through embedded, operational and end-of-life emissions. In short, EVs are only as clean as their manufacturing and energy supply. Nonetheless, there are a number of long-term benefits associated with global EV uptake – and on the world stage, we have already begun seeing a reduction in emissions attributable to their use. In 2018, EVs consumed roughly 58 terawatt-hours of electricity and emitted 41 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2-eq) – but saved 36 Mt CO2-eq compared to an equivalent internal combustion engine (ICE) fleet.2

Worldwide, electric mobility has expanded rapidly. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 2018 was a record-breaking year for electric car sales, leading the global EV fleet to exceed 5.1 million vehicles.3 This uplift may be attributed to a growing understanding of the advantages of these vehicles i.e. they can be cheaper to maintain, there is increasing use of eco-friendly materials in their manufacturing, and they can be better for both human health and the environment.4 Indeed, the IEA believes that gradual progress in decarbonising the power sector could accelerate the CO2 emission reduction benefits of EVs over time.5

There also are other benefits of EVs. Unlike fuel in standard ICE vehicles, the batteries of EVs have the potential to be recycled for stationary purposes, such as battery storage in homes or EV charging stations.6 And as EV demand increases and technology progresses, batteries are likely to become more cost competitive and longer lasting. Presently, the Tesla Model S and the Model X can drive as far as 595 kilometres (370 miles) and 523 kilometres (325 miles), respectively, before requiring a recharge.7 However, lithium-ion batteries lose some capacity through cycles of discharge over extended use.8 To quell concerns for battery longevity, some car manufacturers have offered warranties tailored to EV owners. Tesla, for example, offers an eight-year warranty on its Model S vehicles, while Nissan offers Leaf owners a warranty that covers both the battery and electric motor for up to five years or 96,560 kilometres (60,000 miles).9

China is one country that has recognised these benefits. As the highest total EV-owning country with more than 1.2 million EVs,10 more EVs have been sold in China than in the rest of the world combined – supported, in part, by the Chinese government, which has spent more than $60 billion over the last decade on the EV industry.11 According to The Washington Post, the country is currently in the middle of a “full-blown electric revolution”, with more than 16,000 buses and 12,000 taxis in the city of Shenzhen alone running on little to no diesel or gasoline.12 Although initially costly, this has resulted in a major reduction of carbon dioxide emissions of more than 1.35 million tonnes a year for the city.13

Outside China, fleets of electric buses and trucks are being procured in large cities around the world. The lower cost and better battery performance of these vehicles are making the electrification of trucks and buses increasingly more attractive for certain operations – particularly in cities.14 In the United States,15 one of New Energy Solar’s (NEW) preferred markets for solar investment, there are an estimated 762,060 EVs16 in circulation, and major vehicle manufacturers VW, Ford and Chevrolet have collectively invested $2 billion into new or upgraded centres to produce EVs with autonomous functions.17

"[EV] additions highlight mainstream acceptance of the transition to electric vehicles in Australia..."

Electric vehicles in Australia

In Australia, EVs still face some challenges. GoCompare found that Australia ranked last in terms of chargers per 100 kilometres and the number of charging stations versus petrol stations,18 unsurprising given the concentration of Australian population along coastal cities. According to Infrastructure Australia, consumer uncertainty about the charging infrastructure is thought to be a key barrier to adoption.19 The independent statutory body has labelled the expansion of EV charge infrastructure a high priority, calling for a network of fast-charging stations on the national highway network to help drive adoption.20 It went on to say that the technology exists for Australians to drive in zero-emissions vehicles; however, all that remains is the “political will” to make strides in this space.21

While the Australian government has identified the potential benefits of a national strategy for EVs in line with the Climate Solutions proposal announced earlier this year, it could still be some time before consumers see a detailed strategy to support the transition to zero-emissions transport.22 The promised National Electric Vehicle Strategy is expected to address barriers to EV uptake, building on work undertaken by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, financing from Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and the work of the COAG Transport and the Infrastructure Council to explore issues that seek to improve the consistency and interoperability of public charging as well as the integration of electric vehicle batteries with the electricity system.23

In the meantime, federal inaction has not impacted a small number of initiatives introduced to help accommodate EVs in Australia. For example, the councils of Waverley, Woollahra and Randwick have formed a regional environmental program aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, and recently signed deals that could see kerbside electric car charging stations installed in each area.24 Elsewhere in Sydney, EVSE Australia has set a record for the largest single-site apartment installation of EV chargers.25 It is also in the process of fitting out 11 chargers across five car parks in the North Sydney Council area and another 22 in a St Leonards apartment development.26 According to EVSE, there has been a significant increase in demand for EV chargers from developers and commercial builders – additions that highlight mainstream acceptance of the transition to electric vehicles in Australia.27

New Energy Solar believes that a considered approach to charging infrastructure in Australia would improve the adoption of EVs which, in turn, could lead to a more balanced energy mix. This, together with advances in manufacturing and battery technology, could improve the cleanliness of electric vehicles and, in time, play a key role in lowering Australia’s carbon emissions.

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