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The Lowdown On Electric: Are Electric Vehicles The Answer?

lowdown-electric

Ideally we’d do away with cars altogether, to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and carbon emissions. We would use bikes, public transport, walk or even go back to saddling up our trusty steed. But the reality is that most people still use cars daily: in our recent Pip survey, 86% of readers said they rely on cars as their main form of transport.

So if you do own a car, and can’t see any way of doing without it in the near future, what can you do to create the least impact on the planet? With technology changing fast, electric vehicles (EVs) seem to be leading the way to create a lower emission, smaller carbon footprint alternative to petrol and diesel powered vehicles.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS

There are many ways in which travelling by car affects the planet, including: the embodied energy in manufacture; fuel use; and emissions.

According to the Green Vehicle Guide, the vehicle operation phase (at least for a conventional vehicle with an internal combustion engine) consumes around 85–90% of lifecycle energy use. The extraction, production and transportation of the fuels on which vehicles operate require energy and, in the process, emissions of both air pollutants and greenhouse gases are produced.

SOURCES OF ELECTRICTY

Unlike petroleum-based fuels, electricity is generated from a variety of sources, mainly: brown coal, which has the highest emissions; green power, supplied by your electricity company; or self-generated renewable energy.

With the rise of household solar systems, the power to run your car can be generated on your own roof by a renewable resource, with zero emissions (aside from the energy used to produce the panels and related hardware). With recent reductions in electricity rebates, an EV might be a good way to use excess power generated by your rooftop system.

Even if you do choose to run your EV by plugging it into the grid powered by brown coal, according to Paul Paton (president of the ATA Electric Vehicle Group) the CO2 emissions are reduced by 35% compared with a petrol-powered vehicle. Refining crude oil into petroleum products uses more electricity than is used in powering an electric car with coal. And with no emissions, local pollution levels will also be reduced.

RANGE

Range is the biggest factor affecting the uptake of EVs in Australia: drivers are worried they won’t be able to get from A to B with ease, and will be stranded on the roadside. As the average daily distance travelled by car is 35–70 km, and the average range of EVs is 50–150 km, this shouldn’t be a concern to most people for local trips; however, it does affect those who have only one car and want to travel greater distances. The Nissan Leaf, for example has a current range of approximately 135 km from a charge, which should be sufficient to satisfy most driving needs. You do need to recharge EVs regularly and, if you’re relying on solar, you need to be able to charge in the daytime.

Car manufacturers are working on extending the range and rumours suggest they will be releasing cars with greater range in the near future.

HYBRID VEHICLES

For those who don’t want to rely solely on electricity, and may feel nervous travelling longer distances, there is the option of a plug-in hybrid EV (PHEV). PHEVs still charge from electricity but have both a piston engine and an electric motor, allowing you to switch over to petrol when the electric charge runs out, extending your range. A good example of this is the Mitsubishi Outlander (see box).

PRICE

Hybrid and EVs are currently more expensive than their petrol- powered counterparts, partly because of the low uptake so far and economies of scale, and partly because there is little government incentive. The gap should narrow with increased production and more efficient technology.

The cheapest second hand EVs available at the time of writing start at around $25 000. However, considering that these are only a few years old, and with reduced running costs, this may make up for the extra initial outlay.

The best-selling EV in Australia is currently the Nissan Leaf (see box): with a range of around 135 km they sell for $40 000 new, and around $28 000 second-hand. At the upper end of the market is the Tesla series: with a range of around 320 km, prices start at around $120 000.

PHEVs include the Holden Volt and Mitsubishi Outlander. The latter has a 50 km range on the electric engine which then switches over to petrol, and prices start at about $47 000 new.

RUNNING COSTS

According to the My Electric Car website, EVs are 70% cheaper to run than petrol vehicles and have greatly reduced servicing costs. If you run your car entirely from your solar system you have no fuel costs; if you run it o§-peak it might cost around $300 a year or at peak price $7–800, compared with $2700 for petrol. Added up over a few years you easily pay for the extra upfront cost.

Because of the simplified engine – around half a dozen moving parts compared with hundreds in a piston engine – servicing costs for EVs can be less too: less to go wrong means less servicing needed.

CHARGING AT HOME

The other cost to consider when buying an EV is the infrastructure you need to charge it at home. A dedicated 15 amp power point is recommended for charging from, although some models can run on 10 amps (check manufacturers’ recommendations). A basic home charger should cost around $2–300 to install, or you can pay more: a super-charging station will set you back several thousand dollars.

Before buying an EV, be sure to check that your home is capable of powering the vehicle that you choose, and what you will need to charge your vehicle.

PUBLIC CHARGING STATIONS

Australia is a large country where people travel long distances, and it’s lagging behind in public charging. However, public stations do exist and the number will grow with uptake.

Tesla is investing in super-charging stations – where you can charge your car in a matter of minutes instead of hours – between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, along the main highway. Government support is needed to extend this infrastructure if widespread use of EVs is to happen. A map of residential, public and high-powered charging stations, around the country and globally, is at www.plugshare.com.

BATTERIES

EV manufacturers are putting a lot of research and development into extending the range of the vehicles, decreasing battery size and reducing purchase price. According to Paul Paton, battery improvements increase the range of cars 15% each year and prices are dropping. Current battery life is eight to ten years in the car, and they can last another ten if repurposed as an energy-storage battery.

UPTAKE IN AUSTRALIA

EVs have been available for the last five or six years, yet Australians have been slow on the uptake, because of: lack of government support, high purchase price, lack of battery range and insufficient fast public charging stations.

Although many developed-country governments offer significant incentives, which reduce the purchase price and ongoing costs (e.g. discounted registration and parking), Australian government incentives are not yet sufficient to encourage uptake.

THE FUTURE

So, should we all go out and buy an EV to replace our petrol cars? As is often the case with new innovations, the technology is still developing and will improve rapidly over the next decade. So when your current car needs replacing an EV or PHEV is worth considering depending on your personal situation but it might be wise to hold out for a year or two for technologies to improve and prices to come down. Rumour is that the major manufacturers will be releasing vehicles with greater range and lower costs over the next year or two.

CASE STUDY: NISSAN LEAF EV (2011 model)

Name of owner: John Hill

Cost of vehicle: $40 000.

Range: 100–160 km per charge, depending on factors such as driving style, use of A/C, age of battery (2017 model is rumoured to around double this range). [usual daily trip is 80–100 km]

Time to charge: 4–5 hours at 10 A standard overnight charge (20 minute charge is possible).

Cost of charge: around $2 at off-peak grid rates.

General car use: to drive to work and back, occasional side trips.

Average distance travelled each year: 17 000 km.

Cost to run per year: $636 registration + $645 comprehensive insurance + $400 service = $1681; + $500 electricity (if not solar) = $2181.

Pros: environmentally good when charged by solar, quiet, minimal maintenance, nippy acceleration and cheap to run.

Cons: limited range (not a problem in this case).

Total emissions: zero emissions to run if charged from solar; minimal embedded energy, and maximum recyclability

(claimed by manufacturer).

Ease of service: minimal service required – in three years only one part replaced (A/C pollen õlter) and one software update, otherwise just maintenance checks.

CASE STUDY: MITSUBISHI OUTLANDER PHEV 4WD (2014 model)

Name of owner: Kerry Hill

Cost of vehicle: $55 000.

Range: 30–50 km on electricity depending on factors such as driving style, use of A/C, age of battery; 500–570 km on petrol. [usual daily trip 10–40 km]

Time to charge: 1–5 hours at 10 A standard overnight charge (fast charge – 20 minutes – is optional but not installed).

Cost of charge: $1.50 at off-peak; zero for solar.

General use: local trips, occasional holidays.

Average distance travelled each year: 15 000 km.

Cost to run per year: $619 registration + $579 comprehensive insurance + $940 service = $2138; + $300 electricity (if not by solar) + $1400 petrol (long trips) = $3838.

Pros: environmentally good when charged by solar, quiet, less maintenance than fully petrol car and cheap to run.

Cons: spare tyre not standard and inadequate clearance for real 4WD use.

Total emissions: zero emissions to run if charged from solar; the efficient petrol motor seldom runs, so much less emissions than fully petrol car.

Ease of service: less wear and tear compared to fully petrol car (engine runs less and regenerative braking); servicing (e.g. oil change) each 15 000 km.

For further information see: www.greenvehicleguide.gov.au, www.myelectriccar.com.au.

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