Global Observer

Is Australia ready for the electric car?

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MELBOURNE -- Is Australia's electric vehicle market set to take off? Government and solar companies seem to think so.

Charging station reflected in Holden Volt

MELBOURNE -- Early this year, Victoria's first solar-powered electric vehicle (EV) charging station was opened for public use at the CERES Community Centre.

The solar charging station, located in Melbourne's north, is currently generating clean and renewable electricity to power the city's EVs.

The initiative is a result of a collaboration between the Australian and Victorian governments, solar companies Q-CELLS Australia, who donated 12 Q.PRO solar photovoltaic (PV) modules, and Delta Energy Systems, who donated the solar inverter.

Over the past few years, the Australia Federal and Victorian governments have, to a degree, supported the renewable energy sector, particularly solar PV, through feed-in-tariffs and other rebates.

Given the importance of energy security, the launch of the solar charging station is a modest but significant milestone for Australia's energy future.

"Australia is following a trend that has started in Europe", Q.CELLS Australia representative Julia Pfeiffer said. "The community is much more aware of the need to be more environmentally friendly. The Victorian Government is actively supporting this trend through its EV Trial of which the station at CERES forms part of."

To date, EVs (and their hybrid cousins) have been met with some skepticism in Australia (despite the country's abundance of solar energy). The nation's slow adoption of EVs is centred on four sticking points; how efficient, expensive, capable (i.e. their range) and environmentally sustainable they are, in comparison to their petroleum-fuelled counterparts.

"Of course the idea of EVs is to curb our carbon footprint and to make our lives more sustainable," Pfeiffer said. "Provided they run on electricity generated from renewables, electric cars do go some way toward addressing the issues of oil dependency and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as air and noise pollution from cars idling around densely populated cities."

"But if they run on energy generated from coal-fired power, then they merely transfer pollution from Australia’s cities to rural locations and do nothing to reduce emissions. This is where solar PVs can greatly contribute," Pfeiffer said.

Judy Glick, a CERES spokesperson, indicated that the CERES charging station is emission-free. "Our charge station is fitted with a 2.8KW PV system which is the size of a system needed to charge a standard vehicle. It is therefore possible to have no carbon emissions resulting from the use of an electric vehicle charged in this manner."

Solar modules donated by solar provider Q-Cells Australia capture energy from the sun to power greener electric vehicles.

The CERES charge station is fitted with a ChargePoint, which is the interface between the electricity source and the car charging apparatus.

The ChargePoint is compatible with all major electric vehicles on the market or about to come on the market.

According to research, electric cars have an average efficiency of 80%, which is much higher when compared to conventional gasoline engines that can effectively use only 15% of the fuel energy content, or diesel engines which can only achieve efficiencies of around 20% [Source: Shah, Saurin D. (2009). "2". Plug-In Electric Vehicles: What Role for Washington? (1st ed.). The Brookings Institution. pp. 29, 37 and 43].

According to CERES, current electric vehicles will take around 5 hours to fully charge from a flat battery and costs about $3 compared to around $15-17 for petrol to get the equivalent distance of 100km. The ChargePoint is designed to deal with advances in vehicle and battery technology to enable faster charging in the future.

"To date, prices of EVs are still higher compared to conventional vehicles. However taking running and maintenance costs into consideration, EVs will become a viable option within the next few years,” Pfeiffer said.

"Sustainability and renewable energy in particular are still quite new concepts in Australia and have not yet received the same traction as in Europe and especially Germany. Public education about the benefits of sustainable transport options and its relative ease of implementation are issues that need to be tackled," Pfeiffer said.

ChargePoint Chief Executive officer James Brown claimed that Australia’s late entry into the market has been an advantage. "Other countries have been 'debugging' the technology on our behalf and developing the appropriate charging solutions...” he said.

The high capital investment required to get EVs to market in an economically viable form has, to an extent, depended on the initial take up in larger markets such as the U.S., Europe and Japan.

In 2009 the global EV market was worth more than $26 billion. This market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.5% between 2010 and 2015, this will result in a $78 billion global market in 2015 [Source: the BCC].

The CERES charging station is part of the Victorian Electric Vehicle Trial, a government initiative that will help to roll out much more efficient transport options, to improve air quality in our cities and above all, to create new job opportunities for Australians.

Victoria is one of only 15 places worldwide where a car can be taken from design through to the showroom floor [Source: Victorian EV Trial website].

This Victorian EV Trial will run until mid-2014 with vehicle participants such as Holden, Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Blade Electric Vehicles, and EDay, all on aboard. The general public can take part in the trial by registering their interest to drive an electric powered vehicle for three months.

In 2011, the top-selling EV (the Mitsubishi i-MiEV) in Australia sold only 30 vehicles [Source: Drive]. Despite this low figure, Brown remained positive about Australia's uptake of the EV in the coming years. "Ten years down the track the expectation is that up to 20% of all new vehicles sold in Australia will be EVs," he said.

Of course, the big oil companies claim that electric cars will never outnumber gasoline and diesel models. [Source: Reuters].

However, the Australian Government is confident that EVs will make up 20% of new car sales in Australia by the end of the decade and 45% by 2030.

The public release of the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV (soon to be followed by the Holden Volt and the Renault Fluence) in Australia, seems to suggest that the country is ready for the electric car -- but it still remains unclear just how quickly and successful this uptake will be.

Photo: © GM, courtesy of Holden Australia (main), CERES (insert).

Lieu Thi Pham

Correspondent (Melbourne)

Lieu Thi Pham is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She has contributed to The Age, Associated Newspapers, Melbourne University Magazine, the Big Issue, Dazed and Confused, Indesign Group, Time Out, SOMA and Niche Media. She holds degrees from the University of Melbourne and RMIT University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure