For Ergon Energy's Network and Strategy Engineer Don McPhail, it's not a matter of if but when electric vehicles (EVs) become mainstream.
And he believes growth will happen but it will still be slow without policy support from federal, state and local governments.
Don is an electrical engineer with experience in the Australian, UK, European and USA power industries, having worked for energy utilities, a consultancy and an electric vehicle infrastructure company.
He's also leading and developing our EV Strategy (PDF 806.8 kb) recognising that our industry is entering a new paradigm as new technologies provide customers with more choice and options for not only electricity but transport too.
Solar PV and other customer focused technologies are changing our business, as explained in Our Network of the Future video. Now our network is becoming a two way street and we're preparing for it to eventually become an enabler or super highway.
And the rise of EVs will be part of that even though numbers on Australian roads are low by international standards at approximately 1200. However their numbers will increase in coming years.
With more than 600,000 EVs world - wide in September 2014, the Electric Vehicles Initiative and International Energy Agency says sales increased by a massive 53% last year and are tipped to reach one million vehicles in late 2015.
Knowing EVs are coming and to regional Queensland, Ergon aims to provide an 'EV friendly' network, encourage EV uptake and recharging but in a manner that does not increase peak demand on our network.
Don shares his thoughts about the future of EVs in Australia.
Why is Ergon keen to support the uptake of EVs?
They represent a paradigm shift for transportation in Australia, not only for how we fuel our vehicles, but even the relationship we have with them and the way we use them. For Ergon, EVs present both opportunities and challenges, comparable to Solar PV. By taking an active role in supporting the uptake of EVs by our customers, Ergon believes it can help accelerate their uptake and improve affordability, while improving the utilisation and flexibility of the electricity network, and mitigating the potential for increases in peak demand or degradation of power quality. The great thing about EVs though is the charging infrastructure is already in place – almost everyone has the ability re-charge their EV in their own home or workplace now, via their existing electricity supply.
What are the barriers preventing a greater uptake of EVs in Queensland and regional areas?
Generally car dealers in Queensland, particularly outside of the south east, don't stock an EV model for customers to inspect and test drive. Excluding a small number of initiatives like the Ergon EV trial in Townsville, EV showcases haven't occurred in regional Queensland yet and drivers haven't had the opportunity to see and become familiar with them. While upfront cost is a significant barrier, there is still a lot of misconceptions around their use, varieties and options to suit a variety of driver needs.As well there is a barrier for people living in units/apartments who don't have access to a power point in their carpark, or only have access to a communal power point which requires body corporate approval. The rise of EVs will also require building and designers to rethink construction of new carparks. In California, there is now a requirement for EV charging to be designed into new carparks which can be installed at a later date.
What is driving the growth of EVs world wide and also in Australia?
Many factors are converging to drive this growth including increasing price parity with combustion vehicles, lower running costs, improved technology, better battery storage, rapid charging stations being rolled out, environmental concerns and strong customer acceptance and satisfaction of EVs. Overseas, uptake is also being driven by federal, state and/or local governments which have provided financial funding or tax incentives to help improve affordability and EV payback periods. Typically this has been in major car manufacturing countries such as USA, Japan, China, and Europe and environmentally focused Scandinavian countries. While in Australia we have seen a number of excellent pilots and some EV technology developments – such as the Tritium EV fast charger – the cost of the vehicles has remained high and there hasn't been the same level of government financial support to encourage EV adoption. However that is changing and will continue to change. The cost of battery technology and EVs in Australia has come down in the last two years and simultaneously the number of EV models on the market has drastically increased and I think we are starting to see the seeds of growth.
When do you expect EVs to become mainstream and numbers increase significantly and why?
EVs are well on their path to becoming main-stream globally, with over 1 million anticipated to be on roads by the end of 2015, and 6.5 million by 2020. ChargePoint who manages one of the world's largest charging infrastructure networks, has over 21,000 EV charger locations in North America alone. In Australia EV uptake is difficult to estimate given we are still in the early adopter stage with only approximately 1200 vehicles. However, we are now starting to see vehicles like the Holden Volt and Tesla S popping up in regional centers like Townsville and Harvey Bay, and Tesla has commenced a project to roll out its "super charging" infrastructure from Melbourne to Brisbane. Lithium Ion batteries that make a significant portion of the EV costs have also fallen by approximately 50% in the last four years, and are expected to keep falling at a similar rate. This could lead to reduced prices for EVs, increasing availability and growing popularity over the coming years in Australia. Growth will happen but it will still be slow without stronger EV policy by federal, state and local governments.
Are EVs really better for the environment?
There are a lot of questions around how the batteries themselves are manufactured and recycled in relation to their impact on the environment, and this is an area where industry and governments around the world are making a number of advancements to not only reduce the impact, but ensure that rare metals – like lithium – are re-used efficiently as possible. From a vehicle running perspective, the emissions of an EV is dependent on the electricity that supplies it, however in Australia and the majority of modern grids around the world, the electricity network provides far lower emission fuel source per kilometre, than traditional petroleum or diesel. As well, those customers who charge from household solar PV, or other renewable energy sources, enjoy a low-to-no emission fuel source, and is regarded as better for the environment, particularly locally when exhaust pipe emissions are removed.
Are their concerns about charging EVs and "range anxiety"?
Initially yes and based on misconceptions but a lot of this has disappeared as people become more familiar and confident with the technology and the convenience of being able to charge from home and/or work. In Ergon's Townsville EV trial we found trial participants' confidence increased the more they used the EVs and they stopped charging daily and waited until they had less than 60% of charge in the vehicle. Customer's also benefited from lower cost to run their vehicle, saving approximately $7 per 100 kilometres.
General Motors and Mitsubishi have withdrawn the sale of two EVs from the Australian market citing low sales. Is this a significant set back for the Australian EV industry?
The withdrawal of the Holden Volt and Mitsubishi I-Miev are disappointing and while withdrawn from the local market, they have not been discontinued and are being refined and improved for international markets, and so the technology will continue to advance EVs will come down in price. Tesla's commitment though to enter the Australian market and build super charging infrastructure is an indication that initially the main uptake for EVs in Australia is likely to be higher-end models, until such time that mid-range priced EVs become comparable in price to internal-combustion engine vehicles, which will require greater government support in the short term.