Away from major cities, people in remote areas of Australia can sometimes struggle to ensure basic energy security, let alone install a fast charger for an electric car.
But just getting them that technology poses a major challenge, according to the National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA).
The NRMA’s energy arm and the federal government are jointly funding the $90 million rollout of 137 fast chargers across rural and regional Australia.
NRMA Energy chief executive Carly Irving-Dolan said the company had faced many obstacles.
“Basically the main barrier is network constraint,” she said.
“You will have places with low power, or very little power, that will only be able to power a few houses and a truck stop.
“In other areas, for example, where we’re going to build (these chargers), there’s actually no electricity.”
Experts, such as Scott Dwyer from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, reiterate the challenges of charging an entire car battery in the bush.
“Power grids may be unreliable or not connected to the grid,” Dr Dwyer said.
“So this is really going to require special types of charging concepts.”
Dr Dwyer highlighted that many remote communities also struggled to access clean energy to power their electric cars.
Many small towns in the Northern Territory, for example, are powered by gas with diesel backup.
Several companies are now working on “new” solutions to the problem.
Fast charging from clean energy
A former mining services company that wants to contribute to the renewable energy revolution is working on charging prototypes for the hinterland.
At a glance, the Linked Group Service prototype looks like a giant steel awning.
It has solar panels, a battery to store the renewable energy it generates, a backup diesel generator and outlets to plug in multiple cars.
The canopy could technically be installed anywhere and not be connected to existing power grids.
“It will provide fast charging facilities in regional or very remote locations where there are network constraints, or no network at all,” said co-founder Jason Sharam.
“What we’re trying to do is put together a much faster charger that uses as much clean energy as possible.
“So several cars can charge at the same time in the middle of nowhere and get on their way.”
The Mackay-based company will this month install its prototype in a small Northern Territory town called Erldunda, along the Stuart Highway – one of the longest roads in the country.
She’s doing this in tandem with the NRMA to see if her prototype could be a solution to the organization’s remote highway plan.
“It’s very new,” Mr. Sharam said.
The arrival of the charging prototype at Erldunda also coincides with the World Solar Challenge, an annual race of cars powered by renewable energy across the hinterland which begins at the end of October.
How do people currently charge on the Stuart Highway?
There are already electric car charging points on the Stuart Highway, which stretches about 2,700km from the top of the country in tropical Darwin to South Australia.
However, most are based in major centers like Alice Springs, Darwin and Katherine, and not all are capable of fast charging, according to crowdsourced website for car chargers PlugShare.
Alice Springs resident Hunter Murray sometimes takes his Tesla down this long stretch of highway for business trips to Yulara, the town near Uluru.
“It’s a little bit of planning and it’s a big day,” he said.
The journey to Yulara from Alice Springs is 446 km (one way) and takes approximately 4.5 hours. Even if fully powered, Mr. Murray’s car cannot go the distance without falling flat.
To get around this, it usually stops at Erldunda.
His truck stop already has an electric car charger, but it’s a slower model that can take overnight to fully charge an electric vehicle.
Mr. Murray usually stops there to “charge” his car for an hour while having brunch and coffee before finishing his drive to Yulara.
The installation of Linked’s new prototype at its usual coffee and charging stop in Erldunda has Mr Murray excited about being able to get back on the road more quickly.
“It’s about saving time,” he said.
Generally speaking, he wants to encourage others to get electric cars because of the savings he has made on gasoline, the price of which is currently rising.
“It’s not just about saving the planet,” he added.
Charging gets more complicated the further away you go
Besides the Linked Group Service idea, other companies are working on off-grid solutions using solar energy.
In Western Australia, a regional and remote energy provider aims to install 14 off-grid electric charging points from mid-2024.
Horizon Power’s idea builds on existing infrastructure it has installed in remote locations, also featuring solar panels and backup diesel generators.
Cameron Parrotte, who leads Horizon Power’s engineering and project delivery team, said the system would be particularly useful in remote locations where charging cars from the mains could crash the grid.
“Why should electric vehicles only be installed in the posh suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne or Perth? ” he said.
However, Horizon Power is also doing this on a trial basis only.
“You have to build everything from scratch, and that’s really hard to justify,” Mr. Parrotte said.
“We don’t know how many people are going to use it.”
Linked’s unique prototype in Erldunda costs $500,000.
“They are not cheap (but) doing this with the network would cost 10 times more,” Mr Sharam said.
At its current size, it could probably only fully charge a few cars per day without needing to rely on its diesel backup generator for extra power.
“We will need large-scale investment,” Mr Sharam said.
An opportunity and a challenge
As well as the prototype Linked is working on, the NRMA’s Ms Irving-Dolan said she has four other “recipes” for how to provide charging outside major cities.
“In some of these areas, we add a battery (and) augment what we call the grid,” she said.
“It’s crazy to think that in a few months we’re going to be building these big projects in the middle of nowhere, where no one thought they could go.”
Ms Irving-Dolan said at this stage they believed the cost of the rollout would not exceed the $90 million allocation they are sharing with the Government, but it is a moving feast .
The NRMA has just started charging Australians to use its branded chargers, as it rolls out more across the country.
According to Dr Dwyer, planning for electric cars in regional Australia was due to start “yesterday”.
He believes electric vehicle adoption will accelerate in regional and remote Australia once electric versions of 4x4s and utility vehicles with longer battery life become available.
Currently, most electric cars available in Australia are smaller sedans, like Mr Murray’s Tesla.
“Infrastructure delivery is a complex mix of how the two forces (adoption and pricing) play with each other,” Dr Dwyer said.
“If you go too fast, then (the chargers) become underutilized. If you go too slow, then you end up with queues and people are not happy.
“We’re going to need a lot more electricians and electrical engineers, especially in remote areas.
“It’s an opportunity, but it’s also a challenge.”
In a statement, a Northern Territory government spokesperson reiterated challenges including labor shortages, network gaps and “extreme weather conditions”.
“Government support (is) most needed where there may be a marginal business case for private investment in charging infrastructure,” they said.