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Electric vehicles again

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 28 August 2018


In the week since I last wrote the NEG has been replaced by the leadership issue as the principal topic of political discussion in our country. The search for agreement that I wrote about has failed. There is none. What we have is a reversal of aspects of the Prime Minister's proclaimed policy, and a challenge to Mr Turnbull's leadership by Minister Peter Dutton, which failed by a few votes. Every day there is a new story. I said that sooner or later someone would have to face the reality of the energy problem. No one has said anything about what a Morrison Government would do about the NEG, and the reason may well be that Mr Morrison himself doesn't know. Certainly he has not said anything about it. I'm not sure the moment of truth has come, but the general impatience with what we have is obvious. The media portray it as a leadership race, because that is far easier a story to tell than the awkwardness of what is wrong with the NEG. But the policy issue is the immediate cause of it, and the former Prime Minister's determination to have his cake and eat it too - that is, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy prices at the same time. It just can't be done, and increasing numbers of MPs are wondering why he is so obsessed with it.

At a lunchtime meeting the other day one of those present said that any policy was better than what we had now. Later I realised that what we have now is indeed our current policy, and it means in fact higher energy prices for as far ahead as you can see; I might have said so at the time. Back to Square One. If you want lower energy prices, and Australia is one of the few countries in the world capable of meeting its gas and electricity demand from its own resources, then you ensure that coal carries the base load for electricity, you make it easier to build nuclear power stations, and you remove the restrictions on exploiting our gas reserves. That's all relatively easy. You want to place more responsibility on solar and wind? Then you are prepared to have higher energy prices, because solar and wind need extensive back-up, mostly from gas, and they cannot carry the base load that keeps everything running reliably and cheaply. As I said last week, all this has been known for a decade at least…

My helpless quasi-fury at this ridiculous state of affairs was given an outlet by a news story on Channel 9 to the effect that a new electric vehicle (EV) charging station had been opened somewhere in Canberra. The take-home message was that this was a sign of the future awaiting us. I missed the exact context, but the figure of 300 EV cars for Canberra was mentioned, and that triggered the rest of this essay. Why should we be excited about 300 electric vehicles in our city? Three hundred out of how many? Just last month, or the past year, or since when? Off to the Internet, at least as a first source of information.

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The first source is climateworksaustralia, founded by the Myer Foundation and Monash University, which claims to provide independent expert advice for Australia to transition to zero net emissions by 2050. It starts from an alarmist position, as you see. I should say here that to use 'alarmist' in this context is neither an insult nor intended to be one. These people are raising the alarm at what they see as the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. It seems to me a perfectly accurate label. I could use 'orthodox', but the widespread use of EVs is not yet, I think, an orthodox position on the part of our governments, though it may be 'trending' that way.

Wherever you look, there is furious debate, EVs being seen as the future (making up half of all new car sales by 2030 in one projection), and as doomed (lots). Hard figures are hard to come by (Tesla doesn't report sales), and the ABS wasn't much help, but here's what seems like a hard figure from an industry source. In 2017, a record 1,189,116 new cars were sold in Australia, with just 1123 electric cars accounting for a tiny 0.09 per cent of the market share. I assume that these are the figures for pure rather than hybrid vehicles. Again, it is not easy to find the hybrid figures either. Carsales.com offers for second-hand sale 130 pure EVs, from lots of Teslas at more than $109k to various versions of the Mitsubishi MIEV at under $20k. The first sign of why Australians are not really gearing up to the EV revolution is that these cars are pricey. If you live in an utterly urban environment, and you can charge your car every evening at home, and you never go anywhere else than a restricted urban setting, then an EV may make really good sense. If registration were nominal, then you could afford to have an EV just for local shopping, and leave the long trips for your other internal combustion engine (ICE) car. When I first lived in England my landlord had three cheap cars, a Goggomobil to go to work in, a family station wagon, and a lovely old Wolseley sedan to go to see his parents in Wales. The registration fees were trivial. That's probably changed.

The climateworks stuff was interesting, so I've used it as well. It states that in 2017, 2,284 EVs were sold, about double the figure above (climateworks includes an estimate for Tesla sales, which might explain the difference). It says also that only five of the nine new models expected next year will cost less than $60k apiece. The number of charging stations is also increasing. Even more interesting to me were the results of a survey of people in NSW, Victoria and the ACT, seeking replies as to how they would 'source' their electricity to charge their vehicle. To a simple-minded lad like me that is an empty question. You turn the charging switch on, and the electricity available charges the car. At the moment coal supplies 70 per cent of it. But apparently people think they can have 'a green power or emissions offset contract'. What this is not clear to me, and whether or not it is cheaper is no less unclear. A third of the respondents thought they would consider solar and battery options. What would they be?

Where are EVs most popular? In South Australia and the ACT. In 2017 South Australians bought 22 EVs for every 10,000 vehicles sold, with 21 EVs sold in the ACT within the same total. It is hard to see the coming EV revolution in these figures. At the other end of the scale, sales were almost non-existent in Tasmania and the Northern Territory. Who buys them? Business accounts for almost two-thirds, mostly manufacturer fleets and dealer demonstrators. Private buyers are at 34 per cent, government providing the rest.

I am sure that EVs will increase in number, and that there will come technological improvements that make some of their problems less irksome. Of course, the same can be said for ICE cars, which are very much better in every way than they were thirty years ago, and keep getting better, too. But with 70 per cent of the power generated to keep the EVs running coming from coal, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from using an EV cannot be striking, and the data don't suggest they are. So why are we doing it? It isn't surprising the SA and the ACT lead the pack, so to speak, because South Australia's population is concentrated in Adelaide (about 70 per cent) while Canberra is an almost entirely urban setting. As I said above, an EV can be just want you want, so long as you don't want to go driving any long distances. Unless charging rates are quickened, EVs don't make great sense for those wanting to drive from one major city to another (and we do our share of that).

What I see is a solution looking desperately for a problem. And the climateworks document says, almost plaintively, at the end, that we have to consider Australia's commitment to have net zero emissions by the second half of the century. Maybe we do, but 2051 is a long way off. In the meantime Australians do not seem especially interested in EVs, despite the urging of climateworks and similarly interested bodies.

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And the 300 EVs in Canberra? I think that was the number of new EVs sold in 2017 - it looks about right, given the registration statistics. Why did the television channel think it was a news story? My guess is that, like so many others, it has an editorial commitment to alternative energy sources, and sees anything like this as 'a good news story'. I don't think it is, really, hence this essay.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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