Australia, we’re falling behind.
The future of driving around the world is undoubtedly electric, according to everyone from federal, state and local governments to academics, as well as car manufacturers and fuel companies.
Yet industry lobby group the Electric Vehicle Council says less than 5 per cent of vehicles on Australian roads are electric, compared to a global average in comparable countries of about 15 per cent.
Among the barriers to increasing the numbers of EVs on Australian roads is a lack of supply, regulations, and, crucially, a lack of understanding about just how much Australia’s electric vehicle infrastructure has increased in recent years.
One of the big hurdles to EV take-up in Australia is so-called “range anxiety” — the fear that drivers may find themselves stranded on the side of the road with an empty battery because of a lack of public charging facilities.
But experts say that fear is overstated, and while there’s a lot of work to do to bridge the EV gap between Australia and the rest of the world, most Aussies could comfortably make the switch to an electric vehicle today without compromise.
How easy is it to charge an electric vehicle in Australia?
For most people, it’s actually pretty easy, if you’re one of the approximately 70 per cent of Australians who has access to off-street parking, it’s as simple as plugging your car in for a few hours and leaving it to charge.
If you don’t have off-street parking, it could be a bit more tricky.
Because you can’t just run an extension cord to the street from your kitchen window and most apartment buildings don’t have a communal charging station, there’s a lot of work to be done.
If you live in an apartment building, you can encourage the installation of communal charging points (but anyone who has ever dealt with a strata committee knows what a slow and costly experience that’s likely to be).
If you live in an urban area with mostly on-street parking, you’re likely to be relying on a network of public charging stations – which is basically just like a service station, with individual charging points that you can plug into your EV.
Jake Whitehead, head of policy at the Electric Vehicle Council, said governments should play an active role in encouraging the installation and maintenance of charging stations in these areas.
He’d like to see building codes updated, and a mixture of public and private investment in them, to encourage EV uptake.
“We’re heading in the right direction in terms of seeing those networks increase and more chargers become available, but we know there’s some serious challenges in terms of the numbers of chargers and the reliability of those chargers,” he said.
How does public charging work?
Public charging is typically the result of local governments working in partnership with private businesses, such as EV manufacturers, fuel companies, or private charging businesses, to install charging facilities in easily accessible locations.
There are a few different types of public charging.
The first is known as ‘destination charging’, these are often installed in public spaces such as shopping centres or public parks, and will give your car a decent charge over a period of a few hours.
There’s also ‘high speed’ public charging, which is helpful if you’re travelling long distances.
These are designs for Australians who live in rural and regional areas and travel longer distances each day, and they’re also useful if you’re doing a long road trip, such as that long weekend away.
This is the fastest (but also the least common and most expensive) type of charging station, and can give you a full charge in about 15 minutes.
“As our fleet [of electric vehicles] grows, you have to keep putting more [charging stations] in to keep up with demand. People are buying electric vehicles much faster now that they’re becoming more available and there are more models to choose from,” Gail Broadbent, a postdoctoral researcher in global electric vehicle policy said.
Do we have enough public charging stations?
There are about 5,000 public charging stations around Australia, which is enough supply to meet current demand, but that won’t be the case for long as the take-up of EVs grows in coming years.
Dr Broadbent estimates that for every 10 electric vehicles on the road, we need one destination charger, and for every 100 EVs, we need one very fast charger.
“At the moment, with Australia’s relatively slow uptake of electric vehicles, we’re OK, but there’s going to be an exponential increase in the number of EVs on the road in the coming years, and it will be up to governments and private business to ensure the rollout of EV infrastructure keeps pace with the demand,” she said.
For a few years now, these public charging stations have been offered for free, but as the market matures, users will need to pay to charge their vehicles. This week, the NRMA has begun charging for the use of their stations.
Andrea Pellegrini from the University of Sydney’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies said the decision to start charging users was actually a sign of a maturing EV market.
“As the market grows and as we observe more and more electric vehicles on the roads, this is something that’s inevitable, because operators need to look at the financial side of things,” he said.
“If [manufacturers] want to make investments in terms of more users and more chargers and maintenance, it’s inevitable that they are going to begin charging for electricity consumption.”
What if I’m driving a longer distance?
Just like making sure that you have enough petrol in your tank to get where you need to go, making sure your EV is charged is about planning ahead.
Most Australians drive less than 100 kilometres a day, according to Dr Broadbent, and most electric vehicles have a range of around 350 to 400km on a single charge, so for most of your journeys, you’ll be charging your car once or twice a week at home, and that should cover almost all of your regular driving.
But everyone deserves a long weekend away, and if you’re planning a longer drive, it’s all about knowing where your nearest charging station is.
It’s easy to plan your trip using free websites like Plugshare, which allows you to map out a route with plenty of access to a mixture of fast and slow charges, depending on your needs.
What role does government play in all this?
In its first budget since taking office earlier this year, the NSW government announced it is scaling back subsidies for electric vehicle purchases while increasing funding for EV infrastructure through the creation of a $260 million fund to invest in public charging and infrastructure upgrades.
Dr Whitehead from the EV council has criticised the decision, saying the government failed to consult with industry ahead of the budget.
“It’s quite unfortunate that the NSW government has taken this premature approach of phasing out support for electric vehicles,” he said.
Minister for Energy and Climate Change Penny Sharpe defended the decision, saying it signalled a shift in the government’s approach to electric vehicle policy.
“This is a deliberate shift away from cash incentives for a limited number of individuals, towards spending on infrastructure for all, which will ensure NSW is ready for more EVs to hit the roads,” she said.
“If we don’t have the infrastructure, people won’t jump on board.”
Dr Broadbent called for a more “astute” approach, with targeted subsidies for low-income earners and small businesses, to allow more equal access to the EV market.
“If we want to decarbonise, if we want to make the air in our cities cleaner, if we want to make our cities quieter, then switching to electric vehicles is a social change that’s desirable for any number of reasons,” she said.
“You can’t just leave it to [private organisations] to do the right thing. Governments have to be involved, and they cannot just suddenly cut off funding, because you will find that electric vehicle take-up will fall off a cliff.”