Electric car getting charged

Move to renewable energy

What is needed to rev towards a sustainable future

6 minute read
Electric car getting charged

A push for the State Government to exit coal-fired power by 2030 is in line with much of the global industry, which is progressively looking to implement new renewable energy technology – and the fight to become the pioneer of this shift is well and truly underway, with one heavily discussed aspect of green technology being electric vehicles (EV).

Aiming to increase the uptake of EVs around the country, The National Electric Vehicle Strategy came into play on July 1, 2022 and includes a $22.9 million investment from the State Government to install almost 100 charging stations at 49 locations in Western Australia.

While several incentives encourage Australians to make the switch to electric – including electric, hydrogen fuel-cell electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles now being exempt from import tariffs and fringe benefits tax – Motor Trade Association of WA Group Chief Executive Officer Stephen Moir said the change wasn’t so simple, with lithium-ion battery technology unlikely to be a viable option for future generations.

“The focal point right now is the future of motor vehicle power and whether that will come in the form of battery electric, hybrid battery electric or hydrogen,” he said.

Bumps in the road

Mr Moir said Australia was very slow to take up EVs and there were several reasons for this.

In comparison to Europe, Australia is suffering from a lack of choice when it comes to EVs, with affordability also being an issue.

“If we look at Europe, you have more than 250 types of EVs to choose from, but in Australia, there’s about 35,” Mr Moir said.

“The average family will spend about $40,000 on their motor vehicle, and right now the cheapest EV is about $50,000, and that’s a relatively small one – so, we have a bit of a price disparity.

“Other things which come into account are the lack of infrastructure in terms of charge facilities, as well as concerns over electricity pricing.”

Mr Moir said this discrepancy between EV options on the market in Europe and Australia ultimately came down to government legislation, which was driving demand in Europe.

“In Australia, we have no requirement for manufacturers to meet any obligations in terms of carbon emissions,” he said.

“In Europe, the European Union has instigated a process where manufacturers must offset the production of combustion engines with electric cars, so you get a greater emphasis on the manufacturers to actually bring the product to market – that’s what Australia is missing.

“Once we start to get some legislation in to force manufacturers to bring product into the country, we’ll see greater choice and you will see an uptake.

“However, the best forecasts would be no more than 20 per cent of the total new car fleet by 2035.”

Mr Moir said another hurdle was the fact that Australian vehicles are right-hand drive.

“We need to remember the Australian motor vehicle market represents around one per cent of the total world market, and right-hand drive cars constitute only 10 per cent of the international manufacturing,” he said.

“Without intervention, you’re just not going to get the EVs being delivered to Australia to be able to meet any sort of substantial growth and demand.”

Incentives needed to charge ahead

According to the Electric Vehicle Council’s State of Electric Vehicles report published in July, the number of EVs purchased in Australia has seen a substantial increase in the first half of 2023 compared to 2022, but this only represents 8.4 per cent of all new cars sold in the country, with the uptake significantly lagging behind countries like Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands.

“In Norway – a country held as the gold standard since the early 2000s – they’ve been investing substantial amounts of money into the sector,” Mr Moir said.

“Right now, it’s spending $2.9 billion a year to provide incentives such as lower road taxes, and the removal of import taxes and value-added tax or goods and services tax, as well as a 50 per cent reduction on company car taxes, free parking and exemption from road tolls.

“These are really positive incentives the state and federal governments could look at to encourage people to switch to an electric vehicle.

“What we don’t think is a good idea is to simply give cash to people who are considering buying an electric vehicle.

“The reason we don’t support that is because people who are in the market today to buy a car – which is $60,000-300,000 – have already got the cash needed.

“It’s the people in the lower-economic bands that need the most assistance to transition across, and they’re the ones who can least afford to buy an electric car.”

Wired for a green future, but can we handle it?

If the number of EVs were to dramatically increase, thanks to government incentives or a rapid consumer shift, Mr Moir said the current electricity grid would struggle to cope.

“What we’re seeing in Europe right now is that the electricity has effectively gone up tenfold,” he said.

“The result is it’s more expensive now to run an electric car than it is a combustion engine car.

“The power grid needs a substantial upgrade to be able to cope.

“If we take the Federal Government’s target of over 80 per cent of new cars being electric by 2030, that’s 800,000 new electric cars coming into the market every year – the grid currently can’t cope with that.

“There needs to be substantial investment in getting the grids ready for the drawdown.”

In addition to this, Mr Moir said while EVs produced less carbon emissions than combustible engines on the road, manufacturing an EV and the processes associated with the mining of rare minerals for the battery were significant.

“It’s the behind-the-scenes emissions which people don’t see; it’s the cost of mining the rare materials to make the batteries,” he said.

“These things add to the emissions targets.”

Say “hello” to hydrogen

While lithium-ion battery technology has put EVs on the map, an emerging technology could unlock a greater alternative, with less strenuous mining environments and less strain on electricity systems, as well as having benefits for the Australian economy.

According to Green Vehicle Guide, hydrogen fuel cells convert fuel into energy through an electrochemical reaction with hydrogen gas and oxygen, which produces electricity that powers the electric motor driving the car.

The hydrogen fuel cell vehicles only produce tailpipe water vapour and heat, meaning they produce zero noxious and greenhouse gas emissions. They are also lighter than batteries and take less than five minutes to refuel.

Currently, there are two hydrogen vehicle models approved for use in Australia – the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo – however, these are only available for special orders and not for everyday sale and use.

“WA is in the best position – probably internationally – to be a market leader in green hydrogen energy.” 

“BMW, who is doing an enormous amount of research with hydrogen fuel cells, Toyota and Mazda are all looking to WA as one of the best places to have their technology," Mr Moir said.

“A lot of commentators are saying hydrogen is only fit for purpose for heavy transport, but this is not the case – hydrogen will be a really attractive option for electric vehicles once we get the cost of it down.”

Mr Moir said forgoing the need for batteries significantly reduced the weight of the vehicle, with batteries weighing anywhere between 400-800kg.

“Hydrogen gets around that problem just by having the tanks,” he said.

“I think hydrogen will be the way of the future going forward – anywhere between five to 10 years – simply on the basis that the rare earth minerals required to make batteries are a finite resource and we have to find an alternative going forward.

“In Germany, they now irrigate hydrogen using existing gas lines, so they can convert gas lines using rubber seals to make sure they don’t leak and they can pipe hydrogen using their infrastructure.

“That’s a really exciting prospect because it means the Pilbara to Bunbury gas pipeline, for example, could be repurposed eventually.”

Although Australia is making headway in the move to renewable energy, many factors still need to be addressed before we see a smooth and speedy journey to the desired destination.