Plugging electrics

The New Zealand Car of the Year 2015, the BMW i3, which is on Transport Minister Simon Bridges' shortlist. Photo: supplied
The New Zealand Car of the Year 2015, the BMW i3, which is on Transport Minister Simon Bridges' shortlist. Photo: supplied

Electric cars are alive, kicking and about to spark a revolution, says a visiting US advocate. Tom McKinlay talks to Chelsea Sexton, among others.

In the 2006 documentary Who Killed The Electric Car?, Chelsea Sexton watches as the last of General Motors' then ground-breaking electric vehicles is towed away for destruction.

It's poignant stuff, and plays up the sense that vested interests were out to crush an upstart technology that threatened to upset their oil-fuelled apple carts.

But that was then. Ten years on things are a little different, both for electric cars and for Ms Sexton.

Chelsea Sexton on the Leading the Charge tour. Photo: supplied
Chelsea Sexton on the Leading the Charge tour. Photo: supplied

 Time for cities to get smart

 Pedal power to the people

In what has been described as an unprecedented outpouring of enthusiasm for a vehicle of any sort, the launch of electric car-maker Elon Musk's Tesla Model 3 this month attracted more than 300,000 orders in a week, which converts to $US14billion ($NZ 20.2billion) in sales.

The Tesla 3 is Musk's people's car and will sell in the US, once incentives are taken into account, for less than $US30,000. Manufacturers of fossil-fuelled cars are on notice.

And Ms Sexton herself?

Well, she's talking on a Bluetooth connection from a Tesla in Auckland, driving to the opening of a new fast-charging station at the airport there.

She is, therefore, in a perfect position to nominate the most striking difference between then and now: ''We have electric cars''.

To recap: Who Killed The Electric Car? tells the story of GM's withdrawal and destruction of the EV1, its mass-production electric car of the '90s.

Its popularity among users in the US provided no protection from the crusher, which only deepened suspicions of a cabalistic conspiracy involving big oil, George W. Bush and sundry car manufacturers to bury the electric.

Since appearing in the documentary, Sexton has continued her advocacy of electric vehicles (EVs) in the US and elsewhere, which explains her presence in Auckland.

She has joined the second annual Leading the Charge tour of New Zealand, a convoy of electric cars driving from Cape Reinga to Bluff to spread the word.

Some of the words she likes are quick and clean, quiet and smooth, all of which she uses to describe her experience with EVs.

''They report less stress in traffic,'' she says of those who drive them.

In fact, the trick to more widespread adoption of EVs is as simple as exposing people to them, she says.

''I think what's clear for anyone who drives an electric car even once, is that it is simply a better experience.''

It's a bit like the transition from landlines to smartphones, she says. People will go for the better technology if they get the option.

It does rather raise the question of why uptake has not been more widespread and sooner.

Sexton lays some of the blame at the feet of manufacturers.

''This is the single example in the entire history of the automotive industry where the industry has required demand to pre-date and continually exceed the supply for the vehicle. In other words, for 20 years we have heard `when we see demand, then we will build the cars', which is the exact opposite of the retail model for any other piece of merchandise in history.''

However, the tipping point is now close, she says.

In most places where there has been significant take-up, there are incentives.

That's true of the US as well as the poster country for EV adoption, Norway.

But in the next half-dozen years, electrics are expected to achieve cost parity with conventional cars, according to Bloomberg.

Its New Energy Finance analysts say the plummeting cost of batteries will lead to the point where a mass market for electric vehicles takes off.

They go on to predict that sales of electric vehicles will hit 41 million by 2040, representing 35% of new light-duty vehicle sales.

Others are more bullish still.

Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Stanford University lecturer Tony Seba was recently reported on the website RenewEconomy saying recent developments in electric cars, including but not limited to the Tesla 3 launch, mean new internal combustion engine cars will not be on sale by 2025.

Anywhere in the world.

Seba told the website that electric vehicles would, by that time, cost 10 times less than internal combustion engines to charge.

They are about six times cheaper at present.

Maintenance is already cheaper, as international combustion engines have more than 2000 moving parts while an electric vehicle has fewer than 20.

''The internal combustion engine is 17-21% efficient while the electric motor is 90-95% efficient. The EV is five times more energy-efficient than the ICE car,'' he told the website.

But it's not just the analysts and commentators getting excited.

It was recently revealed that Hyundai and sister company Kia plan to introduce 26 hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and fully electric vehicles by 2020.

The Netherlands parliament is looking at banning sales of conventionally powered vechicles from 2025.

Plans for South Island 

It's all music to Sexton's ears, but having seen her beloved EV1 turned to scrap she's not counting chickens just yet.

The forces of opposition have not thrown in the towel.

In the US, the billionaire Koch brothers, who are heavily invested in fossil fuels, are said to be planning a multimillion-dollar rearguard campaign to switch off the electric car.

Here in New Zealand, one of the people taking nothing for granted is in the car with Sexton. That's Auckland-based software developer Steve West. It's his car.

And the charging station they are on their way to open is one of his, installed by his company Charge.Net.NZ. On the same day, two more are opening in Auckland. He also has his eyes on the South.

The map on the company website indicates plans for EV fast-charging stations in Palmerston and Oamaru heading north, Waihola and Balclutha to the south, and Beaumont, Alexandra, Ranfurly, Tarras, Wanaka and Queenstown.

''In a lot of cases the limiting factor is finding a host,'' West says.

Charge.Net pays for everything: the charger, the installation, the maintenance ... West says New Zealand is on target to keep pace with the international rate of EV uptake.

EV numbers have doubled in the past year and need to continue to do so.

His chargers are part of the picture, addressing lingering concerns about range (though those Tesla 3s will go upwards of 300km between charges).

While Bloomberg and others put price parity for electrics in the near future, using the fleet-focused tool on the New Zealand Energy Efficiency Conservation Authority (EECA) website, the all-electric Nissan Leaf now sits between the Toyota Prius and the Toyota Corolla in cost per kilometre.

The higher purchase price of the Leaf is compensated for by the much cheaper running costs of fuel and servicing.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has also weighed in on the side of electrics, recently advising that Kiwis concerned about climate change to put their money into EVs rather than solar panels.

That followed a report by Concept Consulting which found EVs would do a great deal more to reduce the country's carbon footprint.

The report said buying an EV would result in an average annual reduction of 1.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide now, rising to 1.7tonnes in the near future.

''Overall if consumers wish to spend money on new technologies to deliver environmental benefits, by far the biggest emissions saving can be achieved from investing in EVs,'' it said.

Transport and Associate Climate Change Minister Simon Bridges is another fan and hopes to be driving one himself soon.

He had hoped to be in one by now, but has narrowed it down to two or three, including BMW's i3, New Zealand's 2015 Car of the Year, and the plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) Mitsubishi Outlander.

''It's always a bit of a question of how long you wait. I'm sure that if I wait another year there will be more options but I am really keen to get into it,'' he says.

While Mr Bridges has long extolled the virtues of EVs, the Government in which he is a minister has been mainly happy to ''set the mood music''.

EVs have an exemption from road-user charges, but there aren't the incentives here that have driven big uptakes in other countries, notably Norway, where punitive taxes on carbon-emitting vehicles mean one in four new vehicles is now an electric.

The minister teases with talk of a package, ''I hope to announce that reasonably soon'', as he has for months now, but for the most part declares himself happy with the way the market is meeting the twin challenges of providing EV product and installing charging infrastructure.

In the past six or seven months, something like 140 public charging stations have been opened around the country ''by all manner of private players'', he says.

That might be overstating the part the market has played: New Zealanders buying second-hand Japanese electrics benefit from subsidies there - one of the reasons you can buy a low-kilometre Nissan Leaf here for $20,000 - while the growth in electrics in the US is powered by clean-air legislation in the likes of California.

And Dunedin's EV fast-charger was installed by a council-owned company.

But Mr Bridges makes the reasonable point that New Zealand needs charging infrastructure less than some countries as most of us can garage our cars and charge at cheap night rates.

Charging that way will comfortably cover the 33km we travel by car on an average day, 22km in urban areas, and the 95% of trips that are less than 120km, he says.

Mr Bridges rolls through the reasons he thinks electrics are our car of the future: ''It's climate change, it's clean air and then there's also just a very strong economic argument in that at the moment our biggest import is still petroleum.''

As a nation, we imported about $5billion worth of oil last year, much of it from parts of the world not known for stability, some hundreds of millions of that destined for Dunedin.

Homegrown transport energy is an attractive proposition.

Even without a package of government incentives for uptake, Mr Bridges confirms Ms Sexton's assessment that we have reached a tipping point, though he calls it a ''cusp''.

''I would be very surprised if at the end of this year we are not at 2000 or more electric vehicles and then a doubling after that.''

And into the future, it will be driverless, autonomous low-emission shared EVs, he says.

''We are already seeing more and more young people in the Dunedins of this world who do not own cars and maybe don't even have driver's licences, want to own a cellphone more than they do a vehicle and who may in fact over their lifetimes not own cars because of the way innovation is coming together. I think the car of the future is a driverless electric vehicle that you don't own.''

And he agrees that it is all likely to happen much more quickly than many might think.

Mr West says rather than come in with incentives for EVs, the Government could look at a regime that aims to reduce pollution.

''We know that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year in health costs due to the air quality as a direct result of burning fossil fuels. So if the Government wants to mandate something, perhaps a fleet-wide emission target would be a good idea and let the manufacturers figure out how to achieve it.''

They could do it by improving emissions or adopting alternative technologies.

''Electric vehicles are a very easy win. A very easy way to hit the lower emissions across our fleet.''

A last word though to Ms Sexton, or perhaps two: torque and horsepower.

''I like torque and horsepower more than anyone rightfully should, so I am drawn to the performance aspects of it,'' she says of EVs.

They are clean, green and they go fast.


EV advantages
Reasons for choosing an electric vehicle:

• They are cheaper to run (equivalent to paying 30c a litre for petrol).

• They don't pollute the air with harmful exhaust emissions.

• In New Zealand they use our extremely high proportion of renewably generated electricity (80% in 2015) to reduce carbon emissions from the transport sector by 80% and make our light vehicle fleet much more efficient.

• They can be charged anywhere there is a power point.

• EVs are quieter than petrol or diesel vehicles.

• Fewer lifecycle emissions: even when you take into account raw material extraction, battery manufacture, vehicle manufacture and shipping, battery EVs emit 60% fewer climate change emissions over the full life cycle than for petrol vehicles.

• Cheaper to service, with many fewer moving parts than a conventional internal combustion engine.

Source: EECA


Leading the charge

• The Leading the Charge tour of electric vehicles passes through Waimate (midday-1pm, next to the local government centre) and Oamaru (2-3pm, Steampunk HQ, Itchen St) on Wednesday, then stops in the Octagon, Dunedin, on Thursday morning (8am-midday).

• It includes three Tesla models, a PHEV Mitsubishi Outlander and the BMW i3.

• For the Dunedin leg, local owners of EVs, including Nissan Leafs and converted electrics, will also be in the Octagon. Some will be available for rides.



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