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Just as Australia begins to catch up with the rest of the world in its uptake of electric cars – a step crucial to reducing the transport sector’s significant greenhouse gas emissions – a lack of reliable charging stations is getting in the way of further progress. By Mike Seccombe.

Charging stations are the next hurdle in EV progress

Two EV charging stations beside parking spaces.
Ultra-fast electric vehicle chargers at a service station at Port Macquarie, on the NSW Pacific Highway.
Credit: Martin Berry / Alamy

The good news is sales of new electric vehicles in Australia increased by more than 160 per cent in 2023. The less good news is that the number of public EV charging stations increased over the same period by less than half that amount: 70 per cent.

Many of the chargers on Australia’s highways are still old, slow and breakdown-prone. And there are not nearly enough of them.

As Geoff Cousins can attest. The prominent businessman, former president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and early EV adopter – he has been driving electric for nearly a decade – was not feeling the spirit of the festive season as he drove from Sydney to northern New South Wales on the day after Boxing Day, searching for a public charger that wasn’t out of order or backed up with ridiculously long queues.

What he wanted was an ultra-fast charger, because “you can literally put your car on one of those, have a cup of coffee and 20 minutes later you’ve got 300 to 400 kilometres of charge and off you go.” What he wound up doing was plugging in at a slow charger at a shopping centre, “which takes bloody hours”.

The thing that really riles Cousins, who makes the trip up the Pacific Highway regularly, is the problems are not confined to peak periods. “These things are perpetually out of order,” he says. “This is a recurring pattern.” He is referring to the charging outfit whose app he uses to plan refuelling stops – Chargefox, owned since 2022 by the NRMA and its sister motoring associations, the RACV, RACQ, RAA, RAC and RACT.

The thinness and unreliability of Australia’s charging network is not just a problem for Cousins but also for Australia’s hopes of reaching its emissions reduction targets. In 2022, the transport sector made up almost a fifth of the country’s emissions, and passenger cars and light commercial vehicles alone contributed 60 per cent of transport emissions.

There are two main issues here: the reliability of charging infrastructure and the amount of it relative to the number of vehicles wanting to use it. Reliability has been an issue not only in Australia but in other countries further advanced in their transition to EVs.

Jon Dee, a serial social entrepreneur who has set up a number of organisations including Planet Ark and DoSomething, recounts the story of a visit to Britain about five years ago, during which he planned a dinner with designer and host of the long-running TV show Grand Designs, Kevin McCloud, who was an ambassador for another of Dee’s green-focused initiatives, One Tree Per Child.

He rented an electric vehicle and mapped out a route for the drive from Shrewsbury to Bristol. It should have taken three hours, including a 30-minute recharging stop.

“It took me seven-and-a-half hours because all but one of the chargers on the motorway that I took was broken,” he recalls. “I literally got down to 3 per cent charge before I found one that would get me to Bristol. I got there five minutes after Kevin had left.”

It wouldn’t happen now though, he says.

“In Britain now, if you are running a public electric car charger, you have to have open data, so the people can see in advance how much are you charging for your electricity, how fast they can charge,” says Dee.

Most importantly, Dee says, under the legislation passed last November, operators in Britain must provide information on the status of chargers and there are mandated minimum downtimes on the infrastructure. Charge points must, on average, be working for at least 99 per cent of each calendar year.

Operators also are required to have 24-hour helplines, staffed by real people. This addresses another shortcoming of EV charger networks, which is having some avenue to report problems. Geoff Cousins can relate to that frustration, as can Chris Jones, president of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association.

“What you’re seeing is fast-charging infrastructure being installed that is completely self-service. It’s all managed by an app, there’s a big digital back end connected to the internet that does everything without interacting with another human being,” says Jones.

“The consumer … seems quite powerless when they’re plugged in and the thing doesn’t work. They’re like, ‘Well, who do I complain to?’ ”

He contrasts this with an old-fashioned petrol station, “where you can walk into the servo and say, ‘Hey, the pump’s bung’, and they’ll be obliged to do something about it. Whereas at the moment, it feels like some of these [EV charger] operators have got a long list of convenient reasons why they can’t help you.”

In the United States, the Biden administration has introduced mandates similar to Britain, although the US reliability standard is lower, at 97 per cent.

But that is still a lot better than the people Cousins has been jousting with, the NRMA. Average reliability across its network of 100-odd chargers “is probably about 93 per cent at this point”, says Carly Irving-Dolan, chief executive of energy and infrastructure at the NRMA.

Clearly, they are going to have to lift their game. In November, state and federal energy and climate change ministers agreed on new operating standards for government-funded EV charging infrastructure. They set a target minimum operating standard of 98 per cent.

But the standard is not yet legislated and will not apply to funding programs already under way, only to those launched from January this year.

Irving-Dolan cites a number of reasons for the relatively low reliability of the NRMA network, including bad weather on the east coast over recent months. But a major reason is technical.

“Most of our network right now is made up of [Australian-made] Tritium chargers,” she says – old model Tritium chargers, which do not have a good reputation for reliability.

A further complication is that in November, Tritium announced it was moving its operations from Brisbane to the US, which could exacerbate problems with the supply of parts.

“The best way I can describe [the technology] would be ‘first generation’,” says Irving-Dolan.

“If you want to have a comparison, it’s probably like your first iPhone. And now we’re at iPhone 15.”

Except, she says, charging infrastructure is evolving even faster than phones.

The NRMA, she says, is “actively looking at upgrading” those old chargers and plans to build more than 200 charging sites around Australia “over the next two to three years”, using a variety of new technologies.

And perhaps the NRMA should be cut some slack, because they are doing the hardest part of establishing a national EV charging network, albeit with significant government help.

“The federal government has partnered with NRMA and contributed $39 million to what we are calling our backbone,” she says. “The aim is that someone will be able to travel right around Australia and get some form of charging anywhere on an average of 150 kilometres, right around Australia and down the middle. That will be 117 sites around Australia.”

There are difficulties in focusing on that obligation, she admits. Many sites will get little use for much of the year and potentially crunched at high travel periods, such as school holidays. And maintaining chargers in places away from big urban centres is harder.

So to the big second problem: keeping up with the demand for new charging infrastructure now Australians are – finally – moving to catch up with the world in shifting to EVs.

 

We’re still a long way behind a lot of countries. Last year, electric vehicles made up 7.2 per cent of Australia’s new car sales. In Norway, the world leader, the figure was 82.4 per cent.

But sales here have roughly doubled in each of the past three years, driven by the growing availability of cheaper models and the growing realisation they are faster, smoother and cheaper to run than petrol or diesel.

Vastly cheaper, according to the most recent calculations by Bryce Gaton, founder of electric vehicle transition support consultancy EV Choice – even given recent increases in electricity prices.

“If you’re running it on the cheapest DC and the cheapest AC tariff, they are 92 per cent cheaper than petrol. Even if you’re running on the most expensive DC charging network all the time, it is still 46 per cent cheaper than petrol.

“Running it off your own roof, it’s still 94-95 per cent cheaper.”

The consequence has been a new variation on the chicken and egg problem of matching the number of new vehicles with the demand for the infrastructure to support them.

It used to be the case that the charging infrastructure ran ahead of demand, Gaton says, but with EV sales “taking off exponentially” in recent years, that has reversed. And it may take some time to redress the balance between supply and demand, because chargers take considerable time to install. “That’s one of the big issues. The [electricity] networks are just really slow in organising the connections, and they are really haphazard as to how they do it,” he says.

It’s a universal complaint across the sector. Ed Lynch-Bell, head of emerging technology at Evie Networks, an independent, privately owned operator of Australia’s largest network of DC fast chargers, says dealing with the big power companies makes planning difficult.

“It takes us about 18 months from identifying where we want to put a charger to getting that charger up and running,” he says.

It’s not the build itself that takes time – that can be done in a couple of weeks. It’s the preliminary work that has to be done. “One of the longest processes in that is identifying whether that site has got enough power available, or we can bring enough power to that site,” Lynch-Bell says. “And to get the local distribution network to let us connect.

“It could take three months, it could take six months, or more, to get an answer from the distribution network, which basically comes in three forms: yes, you can connect; no, you can’t connect; or, the most common one, yes, you can connect, but it’s going to cost you.

“There’s 14 distribution networks across Australia and they all have a different process, they’d all have a different standard. So we are perpetually challenged in keeping up with our forecast build rate. And that time is getting longer and longer as we move to bigger and bigger sites,” he says.

Identifying potential sites is another area in which Australia lags behind other countries, says Lynch-Bell. Britain, for example, requires electricity providers to provide maps of power availability.

“So you can go onto the website … and see the power availability map and you can then do a desktop assessment. It shortens the whole process.”

He is perplexed as to why power companies do not share the sense of urgency about getting more charging stations up and running. “Because at the end of the day, once we’re connected to the electricity network, we start paying them a lot of money,” he says. “We are one of the biggest new sources of demand for electricity, so they should have an incentive to get us on board.”

It is not commonly appreciated just how big the demand will be as the vehicle fleet electrifies.

Tim Washington, chief executive of JET Charge, Australia’s largest EV charging infrastructure business, offers some idea of the scale of it.

“A typical house might require eight to nine kilowatts,” he says. “A typical apartment building would have a 500-kilowatt substation to support the entire building.

“These days, for a bigger public charging site, you need like a 750-kilowatt to one-megawatt substation, to run eight bays at high capacity. That’s like two apartment buildings. And if you need a truck depot, a bus depot … they will need between five to 10 megawatts.”

That’s considerably more than a small hospital.

Last time he was in Britain, Jon Dee charged his car at a station with 40-odd 350-kilowatt chargers. When Ed Lynch-Bell was last there, he viewed the master plan of Hackney Council, which had identified 1300 potential sites for chargers across that single London borough.

Bottom line, Australia has a lot of catching up to do. Tim Washington calls for a bit of consumer patience. Harping about the current state of the infrastructure, he says, risks discouraging people from buying an EV.

“The amount of change I’ve seen in the past three years is unbelievable. It was only in 2018-2019 that Chargefox started rolling out the first 350-kilowatts, really high capacity, charging stuff,” he says.

“We’ll see more and more stations come on board this year, and next year, I reckon people are going to be spoilt for choice.” Before long, he says, there’ll be many more charging stations than petrol stations. Roll on that day.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 13, 2024 as "Inaction stations".

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