In Mount Isa, electric cars are driving the economy — but not the people

Key points:

  • Analyst Tim Treadgold says electric cars are behind a strong copper market, which is one of north-west Queensland’s main industries
  • Most locals use four-wheel drives and SUVs for rough roads and long trips
  • A researcher says developing a network of chargers is key to making electric vehicles viable in remote areas

Couple some of Australia’s roughest and most remote roads with lucrative mining salaries and you can imagine the size of the cars driving around Mount Isa.

The town’s serenity is often cancelled out by loud diesel engines shifting through the gears, with the noise of Mount Isa Mines in the background.

Ironically, a recent resurgence in the local economy is largely thanks to the burgeoning electric car industry, which is creating some serious demand for copper.

But driving electric cars in this rugged and remote part of the world seems a long way off.

“I’ve read a lot about them and I’ve seen adverts about them, but I don’t really go into it and study what it’s all about,” says Mount Isa resident Brian Bester.

Bester, who drives a diesel four-wheel drive ute, says his vehicle suits his lifestyle of long trips and some off-road driving.

However if the opportunity was there and the numbers added up, he’d be open to driving an electric car.

“If technology changes and it’s more economical and user-friendly, I’ll change if technology changes as well,” he says.

‘Copper is the new oil’

The majority of Mount Isa’s 18,000-strong population is either directly or indirectly employed by Glencore’s Mount Isa Mines, which mines copper, zinc, lead and silver and has a copper and lead smelter.

Despite a crash at the start of COVID-19, the market for Mount Isa’s two main commodities, copper and zinc, is going from strength to strength.

Resource analyst Tim Treadgold says with so much global interest in electric vehicles, the pendulum has swung for the copper market.

“Copper is used in absolutely everything. We wouldn’t be talking on the phone if wasn’t for copper, and half the buildings in the world wouldn’t be up if it wasn’t for copper,” Treadgold says.

“Now we’re calling copper the new oil, because of its use in EVs.”

But the valuable metal is becoming harder to find at Mount Isa Mines. The mines are almost a century old, and the grade of the copper is declining.

Companies like the Canadian-based Copper Mountain are hoping to take advantage of the booming market. Its Eva project, north of Cloncurry, is expected to employ about 280 people after construction.

Country manager Roland Bartsch says the company is keen to raise the finance for the Eva project this year.

“With the world moving towards electric cars, we want to be part of that development,” Bartsch says.

“We see ourselves as a critical part of moving forward to a green economy.”

Is copper the new diesel?

Investment in electric cars is fuelling a large part of the north-west Queensland economy.

Many residents say they would drive them if they could handle long trips efficiently and have enough power to drive the rough roads.

E-mobility researcher Dr Jake Whitehead, from the University of Queensland, believes there is potential for electric cars to meet the needs of motorists in remote areas.

“Electric motors have really high torque, they have plenty of grunt and plenty of pulling power,” Dr Whitehead says.

“We’re still having a challenge at the moment where the costs are high.”

Long trips are also a challenge for electric vehicles, with limited charging stations west of the Great Dividing Range. Electrical vehicles have an average range of 300 to 400 kilometres before they need a re-charge.

Dr Whitehead says expanding the charging network is key to making long trips viable.

“On the basis of having a 15-minute break every two hours, in line with recommendations to reduce driver fatigue, an EV with a 350 kilometre driving range could safely drive 700 to 800 kilometres,” he says.

“Noting it is also recommended not to drive for more than eight or nine hours, including 15-minute breaks, without a longer rest break, which would also be another opportunity for a longer charge.

“This is where it is critical for governments to support the roll-out of charging infrastructure at least every 100 kilometres in regional areas.”

Extracted from ABC

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