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Electric cars: Major Tom to ground control?

By Geoff Carmody - posted Thursday, 8 February 2018


Seems there's political pressure for a shift from current 'gas-guzzlers' to electric cars (EVs). The smell of more 'green' subsidies is in the air, while EVs avoid fuel excise (now there's a cost quinella). Politically, EVs conjure up visions of 'green' transport, just like 'pumped hydro' evokes perceptions of 'green' renewables electricity. Perceptions aren't reality.

Nevertheless, a surprisingly wide range of interest groups might like this EVs idea. Consider the coalition.

'Greens' might love the symbolism, at least, ('tho they probably prefer transport using bikes, or walking).

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Those hating noise pollution will love the silence of EVs (but keep a sharp eye and still drop the head 'phones when crossing the road).

Petrol-heads might come to love electric motors. Maximum torque from zero revs. Tesla's 'ludicrous drive' markets this. They're fast.

And, in Australia, even fossil fuel interests might be keen.

Really? Sure. 'Pumped hydro' and EVs in Australia are mainly re-charged using fossil-fuels: including, especially, brown or black coal.

Look at the numbers. Black coal dominates electricity generation in Queensland (75%+), NSW (plus the ACT) (80%+), and Western Australia (45%+). Brown coal is king in Victoria (60%+), and does yeoman service as power back-up for South Australia and Tasmania. Australia-wide, brown and black coal fuel 60%+ of our electricity generation. Adding gas (13%+ Australia-wide) plus other liquid fuels pushes fossil fuels up to 75% or so, Australia-wide.

Incidentally, based on NEM state-average wholesale prices, typically Queensland and NSW are cheapest, while SA is the most expensive, even though it still relies on Victorian brown coal when the wind doesn't blow.

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Right now, coal is essential for keeping the lights on Australian-wide. Queensland does better at this (currently) than South Australia. It will be equally essential for keeping EVs on the road in Australia for decades (and more) to come.

For coal and all fossil fuels used to generate electricity via the NEM (and smaller Australian grids) EVs growth could be good. Hordes of EVs being recharged in the evening when their owners get home will boost total electricity demand. This could also smooth power demand across current peak- and off-peak periods. EVs mean more, and more base-load, fossil fuel demand.

Bad news for 'pumped hydro', however. The price arbitrage economics overcoming water recycling inefficiencies depend on sizeable gaps between peak power demand (when electricity prices are high) and off-peak demand (when they are low). Those gaps might close a lot. If you've gone to bed, but the EVs in the garage are still sucking down grid juice, 'off-peak' might still be 'on'.

Whither (and wither?) Snowy 2.0? Coal-fired 'pumped hydro' or coal-fired cars? Both, I hear you say? That answer sounds like more coal, more gas, more liquid fossil fuels and more power (especially base-load?) in total.

For 'green' EV-driving consumers: don't want to fill up at the pump? Prefer to plug in at home, or some subsidised re-charging facility?

Go ahead, if you've the time. You may feel more virtuous (unless you think about where the re-charging power is coming from).

What a 'broad church' coalition supporting EVs! What could possibly go wrong?

Not so fast.

Who pays? In the 'green' power world, the poor subsidise the rich. Generous 'feed-in tariffs' for solar panels for better-off people are paid for by those who can't afford them. Subsidies and excise avoided for expensive EVs will be paid for by poorer people living in the outer 'burbs, driving long distances to work, who can't afford them, and favour inner-suburban well-off EV drivers. 'Twas ever thus.

The 'green' world is strange – indeed, literally other-worldly. Space X has just launched a Tesla car into space. The hope is it will go into an elliptical orbit around the Sun, as close in as Earth and as far out as the orbit of Mars. Why? No tyre traction in a vacuum (so much for 'ludicrous drive'). No re-charging sockets available either. Flat battery for sure.

Despite large economic and environmental launch costs, this car payload has no intrinsic purpose once up there (apart from being marketed as an 'up there' monument?). Yet more costly resources will be needed – forever? – to track it.

It reminds me of the New York scene in Crocodile Dundee where the hero is threatened by knife-wielding muggers.

Updating his reply to cover the recent Tesla car launch, he might say:

You call that space junk? This is space junk!

Do we need this particular waste of scarce resources? We have lots of fast-moving, dangerous, space junk up there already.

Australia's current electricity generation fuel sources mean pushing EVs now gets 'the car before the (green) horse(power)'.

One last question. If we shift from petrol mainly to coal to fuel our EVs now, do we increase greenhouse gas emissions or not?

If the answer is yes, what's the point of EVs again?

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About the Author

Geoff Carmody is Director, Geoff Carmody & Associates, a former co-founder of Access Economics, and before that was a senior officer in the Commonwealth Treasury. He favours a national consumption-based climate policy, preferably using a carbon tax to put a price on carbon. He has prepared papers entitled Effective climate change policy: the seven Cs. Paper #1: Some design principles for evaluating greenhouse gas abatement policies. Paper #2: Implementing design principles for effective climate change policy. Paper #3: ETS or carbon tax?

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