Electric vehicles can help Australia slash emissions at no extra cost

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It’s become clear that the energy future can and must include electric vehicles. A new report illustrates how they can help slash emissions.

Photo by Yuko Hirao
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Photo by Yuko Hirao
Photo by Yuko Hirao

Australian transport emissions are high and growing rapidly. At the same time renewables are steadily making their way into the national grid and people are actively reevaluating their personal ‘energy security’.

It is now very clear to everybody that energy storage – via the grid itself and via batteries and battery management – will be key to what happens in the energy sector next. What is also clear is that the energy future can and must include electric vehicles.

With trials already underway in Europe this northern summer there is no doubt we will see the widespread  incorporation of electric cars into the grid and into home, public and business power management and electricity budgets.

Already, AGL customers can add both a new EV purchase along charging credit to their power account. Businesses with fleets are starting to wake up to the value of EVs and might soon press for incentives to help them upgrade to EVs. If it’s inevitable – and nobody argues with this anymore  – the only remaining questions are – how fast and how costly will it be. 

This is the question answered by the latest report by climate think tank Beyond Zero Emissions – Zero Carbon Australia: Electric Vehicles – being launched in Brisbane on 12 August with a keynote presentation by Queensland Minister for Energy and Water Supply, the Hon Mark Bailey MP.

What the new study finds is that Australia could rapidly and fairly painlessly eliminate six per cent of Australia’s greenhouse emissions – the proportion currently attributed to urban cars – at no additional cost to the Australian economy.

This is the conclusion of the study’s so-called ‘Low Cost Scenario’ in which oil prices rise instead and EV technology and battery prices fall more steeply. Even though many expert commentators are predicting the Low Cost Scenario will be the most likely to occur, nonetheless BZE also modelled a ‘High Cost Scenario’.

In this scenario BZE found that the cost of a rapid 10 year transition to 100% electric cars powered by 100% renewable electricity was just 25% higher than BAU. Replacing buses costs at most only 10% more than BAU and, if the Low Cost scenario eventuates, it could be $15 billion less, saving billions as well as clearing the air. These costs factor in the costs of installing public charging infrastructure as well as the costs of powering the EVs with 100% renewable electricity.

The modelling by BZE and UNSW’s Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets also makes the conservative assumption that the total number of cars will continue to rise slowly. 

However, several factors could lead to overall demand for cars falling over the coming decades. The trend towards shared vehicles is expected to accelerate especially once autonomous vehicles become available and it is estimated that every new shared vehicle replaces up to 10 private cars. 

Assuming a fleet redundancy rate of 9-10% per year from 2015-2025 the ICE fleet quickly declines, meaning the fleet size is reduced, and also the total cost of the transition to a clean energy fleet. 

There is not much to be gained in terms of GHG reductions from EVs that are charged from coal- or gas- fired electricity.  This is why BZE’s costings include the additional cost of new-build renewable power.

Ignoring rooftop PV generation, to overestimate the demand, BZE calculated the extra load on the grid of 100% battery electric cars and buses at 43TWh per year in 2015, which represents an increase of about 18% on demand. 

The implementation of either intelligent time-of-use tariffs, which would provide a price signal to guide consumers on the optimal times to charge their car, or direct load control, would mean that the extra loads would occur primarily during off-peak periods.

The effect of this is that the additional electrical demand from electric cars and buses can be accommodated with the existing electricity generation and transmissions system, even with the transition to 100% renewable energy on the grid.

Even in the absence of renewable supply an option open to many EV users in Australia is to either use seasonal excess power from their rooftop solar arrays or to purchase 100% GreenPower, ensuring zero greenhouse emissions.

Incentives put into place now could allow businesses and individuals to buy, lease or otherwise access EVs for more trips. It would position Australia to stay in the game on the technology and ultimately allow Australia to take full advantage of rapidly falling EV prices.

It is clear that raising awareness about the suitability of EVs for the task of most urban travel is still a priority – EV trials such as those sponsored by some local governments are a great step in this direction. 99% of all passenger trips in Australia are satisfied by medium range EVs but incentives are needed now so that there is choice and a growing selection of great EVs in the Australian market.

The BZE report also looks at policy incentives offered by leading countries on EVs.  Slashing the company car tax for EVs is a particularly common incentive offered globally and in Australia targeting this policy shift would have the added advantage of enabling EV fleet purchases.

This would lead to a knock-on effect of increasing choice in the whole market – something that is on the verge of collapsing in Australia, and along with it all the benefits of zero emissions personal transport.  

Dr Stephen Bygrave is CEO of climate think tank Beyond Zero Emissions.

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