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Australians are taking up electric vehicles in increasing numbers, but the country is still a long way behind Europe. Now states are offering incentives, and charging infrastructure is being planned, with price parity only a few years away. By Mike Seccombe.

Why your current car may be the last fossil-fuel vehicle you own

Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla, arrives at an event in a modified Tesla Model X electric vehicle in a test tunnel near Los Angeles in 2018.
Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP

Most Australians may not realise it, but their current car is quite likely the last fossil fuel-powered vehicle they will ever own.

That’s the view of the New South Wales Environment minister, Matt Kean, and although it may sound like a big call, it’s pretty much a statistical inevitability.

The average life of a car in Australia is almost 11 years, and 11 years from now we will be well on the other side of the biggest automotive revolution since the Model T rolled off Henry Ford’s new production line in 1913.

Just as Ford’s development of mass production made vehicles powered by internal combustion accessible to the masses, so the rapid development of battery technology will do for electric vehicles. And it will do it far sooner than most people think, or even seemed possible a decade ago, when a small company called Tesla Motors launched its initial public offering on the Nasdaq.

Since 2010 the cost of lithium-ion batteries has fallen almost 90 per cent, from over $US1100 a kilowatt hour to $US137 a kWh last December, according to a cost survey by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

On that cost curve, Bloomberg predicted that “by 2023 average [battery] pack prices will be $101 per kWh. It is at around this price point that automakers should be able to produce and sell mass market EVs at the same price (and with the same margin) as comparable internal combustion vehicles in some markets.”

The point of parity, the analysis conceded, could recede a couple of years, depending on the price of nickel, cobalt, lithium and other raw materials used in batteries. But electric vehicles will enjoy a growing price advantage from the middle of this decade at the latest. By 2030, the authors said, their “expectation” was that further advances in battery technology would see costs fall another 40 per cent.

Bottom line: within five to 10 years electric vehicles, which already are cheaper to run and service and more reliable than petrol and diesel vehicles, will also be considerably cheaper to buy.

Kean and the NSW government have set a target of having EVs make up 50 per cent of new car sales in NSW by 2030, and for EVs to be the “vast majority” of new cars sold in the state by 2035. Those numbers are reasonably conservative, compared with what is already happening elsewhere in the world. Last year about three-quarters of new car sales in Norway were electric. In Sweden, EVs were 32 per cent of the new car market; in Germany 13.5, France 11.3 and in Britain it was 10.7 per cent.

“An EV revolution is coming,” Kean says. “It’s coming because of domestic policy decisions. And it’s coming because of international, global megatrends.”

EVs still make up only a tiny proportion of the world’s car fleet – about 1 per cent of the total stock, and 4.6 per cent of new registrations last year, according to the International Energy Agency’s most recent survey. But the rate of growth is exponential. While overall registrations fell during the pandemic, the IEA noted, “global electric car sales share rose 70 per cent”.

The rate of growth will only increase. Eighteen of the world’s 20 largest carmakers, accounting for almost 90 per cent of new registrations, announced plans to boost production of EVs last year, as well as to increase the number of electric models, the IEA says. At least 10 have self-imposed targets to become 100 per cent electric, among them Jaguar Land Rover (2025), Volvo (2030), Mazda (2030), Ford in Europe (2030), Nissan (early 2030s), GM (2035) and Honda (2040).

As well as the companies that plan to go electric there is a growing list of carmakers that were born electric, led by Tesla, now a $US700 billion company. Just last week Rivian, a US company specialising in electric pickup trucks, filed documents with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission in preparation for going public. Market analysts tip Rivian will be valued at $US70 billion to $US80 billion.

Clearly, carmakers and those who invest in carmakers are reading the writing on the wall, as are more than a dozen governments that have set dates by which the sale or registration of internal combustion vehicles will be banned. Norway will do it less than four years from now, in 2025.

Sweden, Ireland, Iceland, Singapore and the Netherlands have set a date of 2030; Britain, California and Denmark, 2035; Spain and France, 2040. All Canadian provinces have set dates of 2035 or 2040, although they will still allow electric hybrids.

Kean expects more countries will follow their lead, possibly as part of their commitment to take stronger action on global warming at the next United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November. He does not expect the Australian government to be among them.

The Morrison government, of which Kean is scathing, remains a laggard when it comes to EVs, just as it is in other policy areas related to climate change. At the 2019 federal election, when Labor proposed a target of 50 per cent of new car sales being EVs by 2030, exactly the same goal as the NSW Coalition now has, the federal Coalition government mocked it. Labor was going to take away tradies’ utes, Morrison said; it would “end the weekend” because electric vehicles couldn’t tow the boat and didn’t have the range or capability to go bush, et cetera.

There was not a word of truth to the scare campaign but it was effective, as evidenced by the fact Labor has since abandoned an EV target, and also by the slow take-up of electric vehicles in this country.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were just over 20 million registered motor vehicles in Australia at the end of January this year. Among these were just 23,000 electric vehicles.

There are some signs things have begun to change, however. The ABS also noted that EV registrations had increased by 62.3 per cent from the previous year.

And EV sales are accelerating, if not yet at Tesla speed. In its “State of Electric Vehicles” report released two weeks ago, the Electric Vehicle Council recorded that 7248 fully electric and 1440 plug-in hybrids were sold in Australia in the first six months of this year, well over twice the number sold in the whole of 2020.

That amounted to just 1.57 per cent of light vehicle sales, way off the pace of the global leaders, but, as the council’s chief executive, Behyad Jafari, said in launching the report: “When you consider the rhetoric that was being pushed last federal election, the EV discussion in this country has come a long way quite quickly.”

The EV Council report also rated the state, territory and federal governments for their performance. NSW topped the list, with a rating of 9/10, followed by the ACT (8), Northern Territory and Tasmania (7) and Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia (6). The Morrison government rated three.

The states’ scores were calculated with reference to a variety of incentives offered to EV buyers.

In NSW, Tasmania, the ACT and, starting next year, the Northern Territory, there will be no stamp duty for buying an electric vehicle, subject to varying conditions.

In NSW, up to 25,000 buyers also will get $3000 rebates. The same rebate exists in Victoria, but for only the first 4000 vehicles sold. In the ACT, electric car buyers are given two years of free registration and a $15,000 interest-free loan that can go towards the car, the charger, solar panels or batteries.

Currently there are 31 different electric models in Australia. By the end of 2022, it will be 58.

And they are getting cheaper. Fourteen models cost less than $65,000, not much more than a specced-up ute. Tesla, long regarded as the supplier of transport for millionaires, plans to introduce a new model in 2023, called the Model 2, that will sell for $US25,000.

When that happens, Dan Bleakley says, it will be game over for the internal combustion engine. “The Model 2 will just undercut everything,” he says. “You’ll get all this phenomenal technology, and you’ll be comparing it to, like, a Corolla.”

Bleakley comes from coalmining stock. He grew up in Clermont, in central Queensland, before becoming both a climate change activist and an EV enthusiast. He has worked with the Greens, joined Extinction Rebellion, staged a 10-day hunger strike outside the Victorian parliament and got arrested for gluing his hand to the window of Siemens, in protest at its involvement in the Adani coalmine.

About 18 months ago, he spent about $100,000 buying a Tesla Model 3, performance version, capable of accelerating from zero to 100km/h in 3.3 seconds. Then, on a visit back to Clermont, he lent the car to his coalminer brother, who took a mate for a spin, and from that a YouTube channel was born, called Coal Miners Driving Teslas.

The premise was simple: put a petrolhead miner behind the wheel, say “plant it” and get video of the reaction. The next step was to get politicians in the car, particularly climate sceptics.

The tactic, Bleakley says, was not to persuade them they are wrong about global warming but to focus on the other attractions of EVs: performance, technology, economic opportunity.

When he took One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts, probably the federal parliament’s most intransigent climate denier, out for a drive, Bleakley didn’t really talk climate change. “I talked about the lithium and nickel mining opportunities that will come with the uptake of EVs. Seventy per cent of the lithium and 40 per cent of the nickel using Tesla batteries comes from Australia.”

Of course, most Australians don’t have to be persuaded about climate change. They have more practical concerns. Apart from cost, probably the biggest is around recharging EVs. But that, too, is rapidly being overcome. According to the EV Council, there are 3000 public charging stations at more than 1650 locations around the nation, of which 470 are DC fast or ultra-fast chargers, and there is something of an investment rush to provide more.

The biggest commitment is that of the NSW government. As part of the $495 million EV package announced in this year’s budget, Kean says, the state has committed to ensuring “there’ll be a charging session within every five kilometres of everyone living in the city, and we’ll create a charging superhighway so that everyone in the bush will live no more than 100 kilometres from an ultrafast charging station”.

In this country, as has happened elsewhere in the world where the EV shift has gone faster, a range of interests are investing in EV infrastructure – governments, motoring organisations and the private sector.

Says Behyad Jafari: “Shell, BP, other big petrol companies, they’ve now got some of the largest networks of electric vehicle chargers in places like Europe. So have energy companies – it makes a lot of sense for them. They’re already selling electricity, why not sell it into vehicles?

“And then – as we have here – there are companies set up specifically to provide electric vehicle charging.”

And as EVs proliferate, he suggests, consumer pressure will see shopping centres and car parking stations provide more charging points.

Apart from access to charging points, a question that troubles many potential buyers is how long it takes to charge a car.

“Does it take four hours to charge an electric vehicle or 15 minutes?” asks Jafari, rhetorically.

“The answer is both. There are slower chargers that you would put in your house or a shopping centre or whatever else where people are going to spend more time anyway, so don’t need that faster charge. And then there are also chargers that are the size of a petrol bowser that can charge today around 20-30 minutes, but as the technology gets faster, 15-18 minutes.”

In truth, the question is moot for most people most of time. In more mature markets overseas, 60 to 80 per cent of charging occurs at home. As both Jafari and Kean attest from their own experience, keeping your car charged is no different than keeping your phone charged.

And given that Australia has the world’s highest take-up of rooftop solar, much of it will be done free. Indeed, a 2018 survey of EV owners found 73 per cent also had solar. While that’s much higher than the overall rate of solar, it suggests that one technology will drive the other, because they are complementary.

Back in May, the federal minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, was asked on Melbourne radio if he drove an electric vehicle.

“I’m not driving an electric car,” Taylor said. “I live in regional NSW and drive huge distances each year – 60,000 or 70,000 kilometres. So, I need something that can handle the hard roads and the distances.”

Taylor said he would stick with his five-cylinder, 3.2-litre Ford Everest. It makes Richie Merzian, director of the climate and energy program at The Australia Institute, wonder how seriously the minister takes the emission reduction part of his portfolio.

“Transport is responsible for about one-fifth of Australia’s CO2 emissions,” he says. “Transport emissions have increased more than any other sector since we signed up to the UN Climate Convention – over 63 per cent since 1992.”

And a large part of the reason for that is Australia has no standards for the amount of greenhouse gas coming out of tailpipes.

“The majority of the world has CO2 standards for the vehicles,” Merzian says. “We don’t.”

While the governments of other developed countries incentivise lower emissions vehicles, Merzian says, “in Australia, we say you can send any old clunker and we’ll take it”.

Matt Kean makes a similar point, more diplomatically. “We don’t have a car industry here. So therefore, we’re going to take the cars that are sold into our market.”

But the onus, he says, is on us to ensure that what we’re given is clean. That is not a state responsibility.

Nonetheless, change is coming and the indications are that most Australians will embrace it. Jafari cites survey results showing 58 per cent of people would have an electric vehicle, assuming the price and the infrastructure were right, and another 5 per cent were unsure but persuadable. On the numbers alone, that persuasion is fast coming.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 4, 2021 as "Generally electric".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.