26
May

Costly hazards on the road to electric vehicle take-up

Readers will be pleased to know independent member for Warringah Zali Steggall has been able to trade in her gas-guzzling SUV for a hybrid vehicle as parliament returns this week. Evidently, rigid parliamentary rules didn’t allow her to go the whole hog and get an electric vehicle at this stage.

But she’s not giving up, joining forces with fellow House of Representatives members Helen Haines and Rebekha Sharkie to promote EVs, including taxpayers paying for charging stations in the private and public car parks of Parliament House. Presumably, EV owners won’t be expected to pay for the substantial electricity used to charge batteries.

According to some dubious survey, we are all dying to buy EVs, although the actual figures tell a different story. The percentage of new car sales that are EVs is well under 1 per cent and among those new 7000 EV sales last year a reasonable proportion were not paid for by the user of the car.

It pays to be well-off or have someone else pay if you are considering the purchase of an EV. That Steggall and her girl pals thought it worthwhile hosting a demonstration of the Mercedes EQC, a fully electric car, at Parliament House tells us a lot. This car retails for about $160,000. If Tesla is your preferred EV, you are looking at $67,000 plus on-road costs for the base model and $190,000 for the schmick Model S, plus on-road costs. It’s tempting to order two.

One of the problems of having an EV is that if you want to charge it at home it’s preferable to have three-phase power. But, in any street, only a few houses can have three-phase power lest the grid becomes unstable.

What has occurred in parts of the US, particularly in California, is that houses with three-phase power are attracting a price premium relative to nearby houses. Relying on charging stations has its downside, including the possibility of a long wait to get access, in addition to charging time.

In any case, many houses don’t have garages and people also live in high-rise dwellings where garages haven’t been configured to allow EVs to be charged up. If universal EV uptake is the aim, we are not starting from a good place.

Lately the EV lobbying industry has been going into overdrive, seeking to secure taxpayer subsidies to kickstart demand for these vehicles. One lobbyist has taken to calling EVs emissions-free vehicles even though their manufacture, particularly of their batteries, is associated with higher emissions than standard internal combustion engine vehicles.

Indeed, on one estimate, the emissions associated with an EV with a large battery (and therefore greater range) are 40 per cent of the total emissions of an internal combustion engine vehicle before the EV even hitting the road. Moreover, the manufacture of EVs uses six times the amount of rare minerals as ICE vehicles.

But more to the point, drivers of EVs in Australia at this stage head down the highway by dint of an electricity grid that continues to be dominated by coal generation — about 60 to 70 per cent. In effect, EVs are carbon carts. This is also the case in other countries such as Japan, China, India and the US where fossil fuels still dominate electricity generation.

Now it’s possible that some time in the future, when electricity generation is much less dependent on fossil fuels, EVs may make sense from an environmental point of view. But even the International Energy Agency – an agency not known for its climate scepticism (see its latest report) – regards EVs as a marginal play, contributing insignificantly to lower emissions at potentially high costs. As IEA head Fatih Birol has said: “If you think you can save the climate with electric cars, you’re completely wrong.”

And it is costlier to subsidise EVs than other emissions-reducing measures such as investing in carbon soil farming, energy efficiency and reducing the fossil-fuel intensity of electricity generation. In other words, it’s a waste of taxpayer money to throw bribes at potential buyers of EVs to reduce emissions, even though such actions may yield green cachet for governments that do so.

A recent example is the decision of the Victorian government to offer $3000 to EV buyers. Let’s be clear: such spending is highly regressive, benefiting those on higher incomes.

Another demand from EV lobbyists is that taxpayers pay for the rollout of charging infrastructure to make the purchase of EVs more desirable, particularly for those embarking on longer trips outside the cities. It’s worth asking the question whether taxpayers paid for the establishment of petrol stations all those years ago: the answer is no.

The bottom line is, for a variety of reasons, EVs are likely to play a small role in transporting people and goods around Australia for some time to come. They may also be leapfrogged by other technologies such as hydrogen-cell powered vehicles.

As for banning the purchase of petrol and diesel vehicles – an idea embraced by some politicians, including bizarrely the Coalition’s Trent Zimmerman – it would be a brave government to make this announcement at this stage. While EVs are fine to make short trips around cities with adequate charging stations, it’s another thing altogether for long trips in rural and regional Australia.

To be sure, EV purchases are ramping up overseas, mainly as a result of consumer and producer subsidies. Even so, EV sales are still less than 5 per cent of total sales. It’s also clear that any curtailment of subsidies leads to a marked decline in demand. There’s a clear message there.

Extracted from The Australian