Electric vehicles: Are we there yet?

By Mary-Lou Considine June 26th, 2019

Electric vehicles have the potential to help us cut carbon emissions and pollution, and improve grid inefficiency. While the change here has been slow so far, the advent of lower-cost models and more charging infrastructure could see more drivers plug in.

Image: Flickr/dj venus

Last year, ECOS spoke with CSIRO electric vehicle (EV) expert and senior energy technology researcher, Dr Christopher Munnings, to talk about EVs and explore the benefits, along with some of the common myths associated with them.

In that article, we discussed different types of EVs; how and where you can charge them; ‘range anxiety’ associated with kilometres-travelled-per-battery-charge; efficiency compared to petrol and diesel cars; and the impact of EVs on the grid and on domestic power bills.

In the interim, electric vehicles (EVs) emerged as a topic in the runup to the 2018 federal election. The message that emerged was that many Australians remain unsure about EVs – despite their potential to reduce both carbon emissions and harmful pollution from fuel combustion.

People still seemed perplexed by questions like: how do you recharge an EV at home, how far can you drive on an 8-minute charge, and where can you charge the car in public?

ECOS reconnected with Dr Munnings to find out how far Australia has travelled on its EV journey and, most importantly, how and when you can charge an EV.

ECOS: What’s the main difference between charging a car and filling it with petrol?

Chris Munnings: The main difference is that, with a petrol or diesel car, youdrive to a special shop where you put the fuel nozzle into the tank and stand there while it fills. You don’t ever take your hand off that nozzle, because the fuel flow will stop.

With an electric vehicle, if it’s charged at home, you don’t make a special trip or detour. You go home as normal, plug the car in, and don’t think twice about it. The car charges off-peak itself, where you normally leave it parked. You come back in the morning and it’s fully charged.

How households can manage electricity use (red line) to charge EVs by taking advantage of falling electricity prices (blue line) during the late night/early morning off-peak.

For most EV users, 80–90 per cent of charging will be at home, which is usually the cheapest option. If you’re charging at home and driving 20,000 kilometres annually, the additional cost for your domestic electricity bill would be typically about $300–500 a year, depending on what you pay for off-peak electricity. If you compare that to $1500–1600 a year in fuel for a similar internal-combustion-engine car, you can see the attraction of charging at home using cheap electricity.

Given that Australians living in cities drive on average 30–40 km per day and given that modern electric cars have a range of around 300 km, you’d only need to charge an EV maybe once or twice a week at home. It’s the same using mobile phones – we don’t consider it difficult to recharge them a few times a week, we just routinely plug them in.

What options do EV owners have for charging other than their garage?

CM: Charging could conceivably happen in any place where you park your car – house, apartment block, work, shopping centres, or rest stops on long trips, which can be at a freeway servo or on longer breaks: think cafes or visits to small towns.

Public charging falls into two categories. The first is destination charging, which includes shopping centres, hotels, museums, those sorts of things. These are all about attracting customers to a business that makes its money out of the car-parking fee or activity you’re doing. Typically, that charging is free but the charging rates are slower. The slow rates are fine, because the drivers are off enjoying themselves, not watching their car slowly fill itself.

Different charging systems deliver lower or higher driving range per minute of charge: slower 10A and home chargers deliver 0.2– 0.7 km per minute; standard 50kW chargers, 5 km/min; and ultra-fast chargers, up to 34 km/min (ie 270 km in 8 minutes).

Then there are fast-charging stations. These are places where you might only stop on a longer journey. Most fast-chargers fill your car more quickly – the driver is usually stopping just long enough to charge the car to get to the next charging station. This can take as little as 5–10 minutes, but with most technology available today, it will take longer, around 15–30 minutes. That isn’t as painful as it sounds as you still leave the car and go for a coffee or rest break – if you’ve been driving for 3 or 4 hours, you’d expect to take a 15-minute pit stop.

Apart from Tesla, which companies or organisations are setting up fast-charging stations and other public infrastructure? I noticed a surprisingly large number of EV charging stations on the Plugshare Australia map.

CM: The thing to look at is the green and orange pins on the Plugshare map. The green pins are destination chargers, at locations like hotels and shopping centres. We’re also starting to see them more at golf courses and campsites.

The orange pins are fast-chargers, and they’re still few and far between. There’s a network in Western Australia, in Queensland, in New South Wales, and one growing in Victoria. Those have been partly funded by state and local governments or by groups such as the RACWA and NRMA. They need to be subsidised as they’re rolled out, because it will take four or five years before there are enough cars to make those networks profitable.

Australia’s EV charging stations are multiplying, as seen on Plugshare’s interactive online map. Green pins show locations of standard chargers; orange pins, fast-chargers. New Zealand’s push for EV ‘superhighways’ is evident.

On the other hand, many people won’t want to buy an EV until there’s a fast-charging network! It’s called the chicken-and-egg problem for a reason, so those early charging stations need to be subsidised in some way.

Once you get past the initial hurdle, and get more electric vehicles in Australia, the business model around fast-charging changes significantly. You end up with power companies looking to attract electric vehicle drivers, who are obviously very good customers for them. This is happening, for example, in the UK.

There are also specific charger-network providers. They may run a fast-charging network, a destination-charging network, or both. An enterprise like Chargefox in Australia will offer the driver one app, which will show you where you need to go, how far your car can take you before it needs charging, and where you might stop.

What about time-to-charge for the different charging options?

CM: We talk about kilometres-per-minute charging. The options range from the dead slow, but very cheap, 10 amp (A) socket/plug in the home, to a 3 kW home charger, then a 6 kW destination charger, and 50 kW, 150 kW and 350 kW fast chargers.

There was a bit of discussion before the election about how far you could travel on eight minutes of charging. For the newer 350 kW fast-chargers, that’s about 250–300 km, but once you are looking at a 10A home charger, it’s about 2 km.

People talk about ‘range anxiety’ and infrastructure issues, but they’re really the same thing. In the UK, along the freeways, there’s a fast-charging station or multiple fast-charging stations every 50 miles or so. The more infrastructure there is, the less people feel range anxiety.

Electric car charging station at Adventure Bay, Bruny Island. Image: Flickr/Takver

The other thing is that Australia is only now getting second- and third-generation electric vehicles. The first-generation cars only had a 100–120 km range per charge cycle. Most modern electric vehicles have a 300 km-plus range. Some of the new high-end cars, the Teslas and Mercedes, have a 500 km range. That also alleviates range anxiety.

The lowest-cost charging station is the 10A plug socket in your garage at home. You can have an electrician put one of those in for maybe $100.

Higher up the scale, a home smart-charger measures the amount of power you’re using, and can be controlled through a mobile phone app. It can charge your car when electricity is cheap and stop charging your car when electricity is expensive. They typically range from $1000 to $2000. The fast chargers start at around $50,000 for a fully installed public station but can be even more pricey if there is significant work to get the power to the carpark.

The speed of charging is related to the cost. The lowest cost option in any situation is to charge your car slowly, over a longer period. If you want to charge it faster, there’s an added cost, both in terms of the charging hardware, and the infrastructure needed to supply electricity in short quick bursts. That’s why, even in countries with extensive fast charging networks, most people choose to charge slowly, mostly at home or work.

What will happen to the electricity grid as more people plug their EVs into it?

CM: The benefit of an EV is that, because you can choose when to charge it, you can charge outside of the peak. Power companies offer different tariffs to encourage consumers to reduce electricity use between 3pm and 9pm, when solar power’s dropping and everyone’s getting home. They also offer cheaper power after the big drop-off in demand from around 11pm, when everyone goes to bed.

If we had millions of EVs starting to charge just as everything else was reducing, we could use the grid much more efficiently. With about 40 per cent of your electricity bill being the cost of the ‘poles and wires’ that make up the grid, using this giant machine more efficiently has the potential to save everyone – EV drivers and non-EV drivers – on network and distribution costs.

Can you talk more about the move to EVs in other countries?

CM: The discussion around EVs in China tends to be not so much about reducing CO2 emissions, but reducing smog and pollution. Fairly aggressive government policies to introduce what they call new energy vehicles – NEVs – have resulted in a significant number being sold in China.

Companies like BYD and MG are selling a lot of EVs in China, and both manufacturers have indicated bringing their EVs to Australia. BYD is in talks with the South Australian Government about manufacturing at the former Holden plant in Adelaide. The Australian market is well-suited to EVs, because more than 90 per cent of our population lives in cities or towns.

In Europe and the UK, low-emission-vehicle targets were originally all about reducing CO2. This was done most cost-effectively with diesel cars but more recently, researchers have started finding causal links between the very small carbon particles that can go through your lungs and into your bloodstream, resulting in all sorts of health problems. This has led to a strong drive by the UK government to move away from all combustion vehicles; it’s looking to ban the combustion engine entirely by 2040. Other EU and US states are following similar paths.

It’s unclear what path Australia will take, but EVs bring many advantages. Electric vehicles mean we wouldn’t be so reliant on oil imports, and they could reduce electricity network costs and pollution in cities.

The new Nissan Leaf is one of the lower cost EV models launching in Australia in 2019. Image: Nissan

In terms of the lithium-ion batteries in EVs, Australia is now the world’s largest exporter of lithium. And some Nissan Leaf components are manufactured in Dandenong, using a CSIRO-developed aluminium die-casting process. But the big interest for Australia is the amount of copper in an electric car, from places like BHP’s Olympic Dam mine in South Australia.

So Australia is already part of the electric vehicle revolution – we just haven’t got the cars yet!

Ironically, Tritium in Queensland is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of EV fast-charging stations, exporting hundreds of them overseas.

There’s a good news story about EVs across the Tasman, in New Zealand. It has significantly more electric vehicles than Australia does, per head of population, with a target of getting 64,000 EVs on its roads by the end of 2021 through a package of government and private sector incentives.

Cost has been a barrier to EV uptake. So, are they becoming more affordable?
CM:
Australia’s only had a few EVs under $60,000, including the Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid. The rest were all high-end: BMWs, the Teslas, Audis and Mercedes. But this year will see a range of new EVs under $60,000 from Nissan, Renault, Hyundai and Tesla.

China’s MG EVs will arrive next year. The interesting thing about the MG and BYD EVs from China is that we could see a very comfortable $40,000–50,000 SUV here that could challenge the dominance of popular petrol and diesel SUVs.


See the Australian Government’s Green Vehicle Guide to find out more about buying low-emissions cars in Australia.

3 comments

  1. Great article! Having just bought a Kona EV, this is exactly what I seem to spend all my time explaining to people.

  2. Having had an electric car for four years, I can attest to the ease of charging. On the occasions when I do have to use a petrol car I now find it more time consuming – adopting new habits can seem daunting, but for my family the change has been beneficial. We drive consciously – being aware of the charging options, you become more aware of how often you drive, and question what alternatives there are. I agree that more range would be fantastic, and can’t wait for the new generation vehicles.

    And one thing I must add – they are fun to drive – silent, no change in gears means a smooth drive – I feel more in tune with an EV.

  3. I’ve had an electric car in NZ for the past 2 years and wouldn’t go back to a petrol car. Ours is a Hyundai Ioniq and has a range of 200km (more in summer, less in winter). For planning long trips, I aim to get to the next charging station with 40km left in the battery because I don’t want to find out what to do if it runs out completely. Most of our recharging is as Christopher has described: at home on night rates of 13c/kWh. The main incentive is that road user charges have been waived until 2021. Here there is interest in EVs but uptake seems very slow.

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