Australia has long had a love affair with the internal combustion engine. Are first petrol car was developed in 1901. (Admittedly, the engine was imported from Germany.)
Roll forward 122 years and there is one now registered motor vehicle for everyone of the 20 million people of driving age in Australia. And energy from fossil fuels 99.9% of these vehicles.
The slow pace at which Australia has adopted electric vehicles is driving many crazy. But the transition to electric vehicles is changing in Australia, driven by consumers and government alike.
The first signs of this shift can be seen in the latest quarterly vehicle sales data. Two-thirds of mid-sized cars sold were electric.
Also this week is the National Electric Vehicle Strategy filled a glaring hole in federal policy. All states and territories and many local governments have been taking steps for some time to drive adoption of electric vehicles.
Fleet electrification will be one of Australia’s biggest challenges this century. But what makes Australia different from other countries? And why does it make sense to embrace a position as a fast follower?
Read more: Australia finally has an electric vehicle strategy. How does it stack up?
A country married to the car
You can see why cars are so popular in a country like Australia. We are the sixth largest country in the worldbut the 55th most populous. With only about three people per square kilometer, we regularly travel great distances through sparsely populated areas.
Australia also had a burgeoning car industry, which led to fierce loyalty among fans of domestic brands. The long decline started in the 1940s, with the last car manufacturer close shop in 2017.
Read more: Made in Australia? The electric vehicle revolution gives us the opportunity to revive an industry
The days of manufacturing internal combustion engines also seem to be over worldwide. The impacts of human-induced climate change are increasing, with the transport sector responsible for a major part of global emissions who stubbornly refuses to refuse.
The electrification of transport offers a way to decarbonise this sector. It will also bring a host of other benefits, such as better health through less local air pollution.
Electric vehicles are not new. The first cars were electric, but were eventually outcompeted by their fossil fuel counterparts. It wasn’t until the beginning of the last decade that upstarts like Tesla started disrupting the auto industry with all-electric offerings.
Not long after, Australia embarked on a series of electric vehicle demonstration projects. The first was one Western Australian trial way back in 2010. However, model sales and availability remained stubbornly low. This was largely due to weak policies.
Read more: The surprising history of how electric vehicles played and won the long game
We have the means to go electric
The frustration of electric car advocates is compounded by the wealth of resources in Australia that can increase the benefits of electric vehicles.
Australia is estimated to have one of the best wind energy resources in the world 5 terawatts of potential. It also has the world highest solar capacity on the roof per person. More than 3 million households can power their homes (and potentially vehicles) for free when the sun shines. There are also 180,000 residential batterieswith which households can store the energy from the sun for later use.
The “happy land” is also showing off huge deposits of the minerals necessary for making renewable energy technology such as solar panels, wind turbines and batteries. Australia produces more than 50% of the world’s lithium and 20% of its cobalt, as well as aluminum (27%), nickel (23%) and copper (11%).
And there is expertise to accelerate the transition
While the new national strategy makes all the right noises, the main criticism that emerges is that it lacks real teeth. In particular, the details of a much-needed fuel efficiency standard are still being developed.
However, there is still enough in the strategy to offer promise. It identifies the need for:
- better infrastructure planning and implementation
- training and attracting workers with the necessary skills
- product management for waste EV batteries
- better access to charging for apartment dwellers
- money for more guidance and demonstrations.
We also have a vibrant and innovative domestic electric vehicle industry. It features exciting companies such as NASDAQ listed Tritiumthe ubiquitous JetCharge and numerous others including EVIE Networks, Shock charge, ACE EV And EVSE Australia. They have created a market without any encouragement or support from the federal government. Leveraging their innovation and drive will be key.
Australia’s world-class energy researchers have been exploring issues related to a largely renewable energy-powered power grid for decades. In recent years, they have explored how electric vehicles can become a major asset to the power grid as “batteries on wheels”. The renewable energy agency, ARENA, has issued more than $2 billion to increase renewable energy supply in Australia. Over $100 million has gone to transport-related projects.
Read more: The number of electric vehicles in Australia doubled last year. What is the impact of charging it on a power grid that is under pressure?
The RACE for 2030 Cooperative Research Center is another important long-term industry and research collaboration. It has received $69 million in government funding and $280 million in cash and in-kind support from partners to accelerate the transition to reliable, affordable, clean energy. This year it has allocated $3.4 million to the Australian Strategic EV Integration (SEVI) projects.
The SEVI project will test how electric vehicles can be integrated into government fleets, holiday parks and residential areas and in three states (New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia). For example, the South Australian part of the trial is exploring how holiday parks can benefit from electric vehicles generating new revenue streams and strengthening the grid in rural areas. We can learn lessons from such trials to accelerate electric vehicle adoption across Australia in a way that maximizes the benefits to consumers, communities, businesses and the power grid.
Read more: A rapid shift to electric vehicles could save 24,000 lives and make us $148 billion better over the next 2 decades
Australia now has an impressive capacity within industry, government and academia to drive the transition to an all-electric fleet. We will have to embrace our country’s unique characteristics and use its resources to turn the new electric vehicle strategy from good intentions into real action.