Electric vehicles in Australia: the challenges and opportunities


By Jeff Allen, EESA National President

I recently attended an event hosted by the University of New South Wales Digital Grid Futures Institutewhere a range of interesting speakers provided an update on developments in the electric vehicle area.

As some background to the University of NSW’s interest in this area, transport is the second-largest emitter of CO2 globally. As a result of climate change policy, combustion engines will not be able to be sold in certain European countries in the near future with Norway for example banning sales from as early as 2023. There is also the view that technological innovations in the EV area are developing at a faster pace than policy and regulatory frameworks are being implemented/updated.

In 2018, electric vehicles sales in Australia made up less than 0.3 per cent of vehicles sold and as a result we have one of the lowest sales of electric vehicles in the world. In Norway electric vehicles were about 58 per cent of total sales in 2018. Australia has significant opportunity for EV sales growth.

The areas discussed covered:

  • The transport innovations occurring
  • The policy and regulation changes that need to occur to enable wider adoption of electric transport in Australia
  • The consumer safety and privacy implications that should be considered with the move to autonomous vehicles
  • The disruptive impact of the electrification of all transport
  • The threats and opportunities on the electricity grid due to increased EV uptake

The following is my ‘take out’ on the matters discussed.

There is a view that the lines between public and private transportation are being blurred as a result of EV development and thus we should not be thinking of transport infrastructure, but rather the mobility platforms (particularly autonomous vehicles) that we can expect to see in the future. It was suggested that there are three major disruptors driving these changes – information, pricing and autonomy – and these will significantly impact the mobility decisions of people in the future.

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Electric vehicle charging strategies are impacting the grid in different ways. It was argued that control of electric vehicle charging (and discharging) can contribute to grid operations rather than just consume load. A number of case studies looking at different charging strategies and how they impact the grid were discussed by a number of speakers. Recent progress in Electric Vehicle fast-charging was discussed, with the current technology being a step change from about 50kW recently to new charging stations of 350kW and higher – allowing charge times of 10-15 minutes. Thus vehicle charging ranges from a 20-hour recharge period for home charging (with a demand of say 3.6kW to 7.2kW) to a public very fast charging station for a recharge period of as low as eight minutes (with a demand of 350kW)! Thus there is the need to involve network businesses at an early stage in the vehicle charging infrastructure roll out.

Note that the event focussed on electric (battery powered) vehicles. There is of course a growing interest in hydrogen powered electric vehicles in Australia – and thus another set of challenges and opportunities. There is the suggestion that hydrogen-powered EVs – particularly for heavy loads – may be more suited to Australia’s travel distances than battery EVs.

Another area of discussion was that the uptake of autonomous electric vehicles opens up a new world of data security issues, privacy concerns and raises questions of responsibility and risk, especially in the roll-out of driving automation (which ranges from ‘hands on’ assistance, through to zero human intervention in the control of a vehicle). The areas for consideration include the increased surveillance and monitoring of human and vehicle behaviour with computers monitoring every move and capturing huge amounts of data. Another area for consideration is that driving and mobility are fraught with varying levels of risk and potentially, ethical dilemmas. Thus questions like “who is responsible when a driverless vehicle causes an accident?” need to be considered.

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Thus – what are the issues impacting the take up of electric vehicles in Australia?

Surveys indicate that a significant percentage of people would consider purchasing an electric vehicle, but they saw a number of issues such as a lack of public charging infrastructure as a major barrier to purchase. Other issues included limited choice in the type of vehicles and a lack of understanding of the overall economics of EV ownership (including “servicing” costs).

The move towards electric vehicle adoption also poses risks and opportunities for our electricity system. Specifically, if EV charging is not managed, today’s grid will not cope. It is felt that regulatory reforms should be considered to ensure adequate planning and migration to a robust grid of the future that caters for the EV market. The use of demand management to control charging and EV vehicles providing dispatchable load also needs to be appropriately managed.

My overall view is that to facilitate electric vehicle adoption in Australia we must consider:

  • Providing better information to the public on electric vehicles so potential users can make informed decisions
  • Development of policies and regulations to support/encourage the increased pace of EV uptake
  • The development of adequate charging infrastructure across Australia
  • The management of the impact of vehicle charging on the electricity grid
  • The development of a new economic model for road use funding
  • End-of-life recycling of EVs and EV batteries
  • The societal impacts of EVs including ‘mobility as a service’ and how this will impact on our cities.