Why Canberra should become the electric vehicle capital of Australia

Make no mistake, Australia is in the grips of a long love affair with cars. According to ABS data, we collectively own 13.5 million of them, and we purchase over 1.1 million every year. With the possible exception of the US, cars are an entrenched part of life like no other place on earth. And nowhere perhaps is this reliance on cars more apparent than right here in Canberra – with our city even being referred to on occasion as "a car city".

The technology underpinning our love affair hasn't really changed since we "started dating" some 100 years ago. We continue to rely on the internal combustion engine and the requisite network of oil refineries and filling stations to support our long-term, short- and long-distance relationships. Until now, that is.

Electric vehicles have been available commercially in Australia for some five or six years, chiefly via the traditional car producers Holden, Nissan and Mitsubishi. However, with '"sluggish" sales figures in Australia to date these EVs haven't even managed to get into first gear yet. However, the steady rise of EVs globally is certainly underway, with four countries (the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the US) and now boasting EV sales at greater than 1 per cent of all new car sales.

In Australia, the last couple of years has seen the technology starting to gain traction and popularity, at least "on paper" if not yet on the road. I think we owe much to Elon Musk's Tesla Motors for this, for their game-changing marketing strategy as opposed to any particular game-changing technology break-through: they grabbed everyone's attention with their finely turned out Model S, a "high-performance luxury automobile" by any standards first … and, "oh did we mention it has some batteries" second.

Tesla's move has certainly put EVs on everyone's radar, even if not exactly in everyone's price-range, and has been swiftly followed by the Model 3 at a far more modest price-point. Meanwhile, the traditional vehicle manufacturers are becoming more active in the same space. The Nissan Leaf is the recognised forerunner, but lately the more high-end manufacturers (BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Porsche) have all announced that they are working on similarly eye-catching, performance EVs with broader market appeal. You can expect therefore to experience a lot more "EV envy" in the years ahead.

Ron Collins, the Electric Vehicle Council Chairman, is someone who certainly has his finger on the pulse when it comes to the EV market in Australia, and he thinks that we won't have to wait too long before EVs will provide the cheapest driving on an annualised basis. "Electric vehicles already cost significantly less to run than conventional vehicles, the variety of options available to customers is ever expanding, and the vehicle up-front cost (largely still the cost of batteries) will fall rapidly over the next decade."


So, what does all this have to do with Canberra? Well, despite the EV sector's current false start in Australia, it doesn't take much imagination to realise that EVs will eventually become the dominant or even the only form of passenger road transport in Australia. A 2015 CSIRO energy storage report concluded that by 2035 in the order of 30 per cent of the Australian passenger vehicle fleet will likely be electrified, a sentiment largely echoed by other independent predictions of EV uptake. Such a transition to an electric vehicle passenger fleet will, to some extent at least, occur organically. But it probably won't happen uniformly across the states and territories and it almost certainly won't happen without considerable foresight and initiative from governments, the private sector and the community.

Canberra is perfectly poised to lead and benefit from the transition in Australia to an electric vehicle dominated transport sector. Here are seven reasons why.

1. Our electricity network is one of the most robust, efficient and cost-effective distribution networks in the country. Integration of electric vehicles en masse into the network will require some changes, that must not be denied, but Canberra has what might be classed as a "strong network" – low power losses, relatively short runs, a good network of substations and a well-planned approach that has faithfully served our fast-growing population. The addition to the network of fast-charging ports in public locations and a high penetration of home-charging stations ought to be relatively easily accommodated without need for extensive infrastructure upgrades and re-design. ActewAGL is pretty quick out of the blocks too, already investigating what it would take to deploy a network of fast-charging facilities throughout the city.

2. Our community embraces change. Australians are widely regarded as being early adopters. I think Canberra shines as an exemplar of this – meeting change head-on and indeed often leading the nation's thinking when it comes to critical issues. Plus, I suspect that the largely widespread support in the community for the Canberra light-rail proposal does not owe itself so much to any vast improvement in either convenience or cost-effectiveness that it will bring to our public transport system, but rather it is a vote of confidence for what is a progressive project that is viewed as a bold step in the right direction towards a clean and green transport future. A transition to an EV-led passenger vehicle fleet would no doubt be equally welcomed by Canberrans.

3. We are a compact city and therefore we make a lot of short trips by road. By Australian standards we are a small, but expertly planned, city. Most car trips are well under 30 kilometres meaning that so-called "range anxiety" (the condition where an EV driver experiences emotional stress about where / when they will next be able to charge their batteries) will be all but non-existent for drivers in Canberra. Additionally, most trips taken in Canberra are in the urban setting where frequent stopping and starting is commonplace. And this is where EVs really shine – you recover and store almost as much energy during braking at a set of traffic lights as you expend in accelerating back up to speed again when the lights go green. And if you ever get caught in Canberra's notorious peak-hour traffic (I'm told it really does happen from time to time) then your EV of course won't use any energy whatsoever.

4. Electricity is cheaper in Canberra than any other location in Australia, which casts a big vote for electric vehicles. You might hear complaints that the price of petrol is always higher in Canberra than in the other capitals (it is – about 5 per cent higher on average over the last 20 years), but the flip-side is that we currently pay far less for electricity than anywhere else. This is not likely to change either; it is an inherent aspect of our compact and efficiently operated electricity network. In Canberra, an electric vehicle would cost in the order of $15-$20 to "fill up the tank" per 500 kilometres of travel. It would cost less by a factor of almost two if you "filled up" from your own newly installed roof-top solar PV system.

5. We're a renewable energy city. It is sometimes the overlooked element of the EV discussion. EVs are fantastic, have zero emissions and are "clean and green"… unless your electricity comes from fossil fuel power stations. Which of course still applies to most of Australia. But not Canberra! Thanks largely to the ACT government's and the community's vision and innovation, we are now on track to source 100 per cent of our electricity from renewable generation by 2020. In fact because of this achievement, you're likely now to start hearing the question "but where to from here for the ACT?" Electric vehicles provide the perfect answer, creating a pathway for even greater renewable generation and facilitating, by utilising the inherent storage capacity associated with EVs, the more successful integration of large amounts of renewable generation into the grid.

Large-scale adoption of EVs in Canberra will also be crucial for achieving further deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Professor Andrew Blakers from The Australian National University is currently researching sustainable transport options for Canberra and certainly agrees: "By 2025 about two-thirds of Canberra's emissions will come from the transport sector. The electrification of our vehicle fleet provides the most obvious means to drastically and rapidly reduce those emissions."

6. We have a large public fleet of vehicles under the control of the Australian federal government or ACT government departments and agencies, universities and other public organisations. Approximately 14,000 vehicles alone are controlled by various federal departments (with perhaps up to a fifth of them housed in Canberra), with another 1300 managed by the ACT government. This represents a fantastic opportunity for Canberra to lead by example; it also presents a fantastic opportunity to ensure that one of the first large-scale rollouts of EVs is done in a well-planned and orchestrated manner where the vehicle usage patterns and hence charging requirements can be extremely well understood and planned for ahead of time.

7. We have the means. Electric vehicles might be cheap to run once you own them, but they aren't necessarily cheap to buy just yet (though rapidly falling battery prices will lead to rapidly falling EV prices). Meeting the up-front cost is a major hurdle for customers of any new technology, so choosing to buy an EV over an equivalent conventional car requires some vision, financial wherewithal and above all perhaps the ability to actually stump up the cash! Canberrans have this in spades, with a highly educated population and an average disposable household income which according to recent ABS figures is some 25 per cent above the national average. If you are going to buy a car anyway, then buying an EV and benefiting from the long term operation and maintenance cost-savings will soon become a sound decision.

So with all this in mind, let's think forward to a decade from now: Canberra has a network of flexible charging stations supplying renewable electricity to a large fleet of both publicly and privately owned electric vehicles. EV drivers are supported with priority access to transit lanes and dedicated parking places in prime locations. The EV batteries themselves are controlled autonomously to meet the needs of the car owner, the electricity grid and to facilitate and benefit from the continued growth of renewables. All the large manufacturers of EVs have showrooms in Canberra – and not tucked away in Fyshwick either, instead located where people want to hang out and live and shop – because Canberra is the destination of choice if you want to test-drive and order your flashy new car. A gaggle of entrepreneurial technology-based companies, partnering with our leading research institutes, thrives in Canberra on the back of the innovation necessary to successfully exploit EV's ability to help manage energy in the home and business, co-ordinate the electricity grid and facilitate increased renewable energy generation. Canberra has truly become one of the world's leading emission-free modern cities and is a shining example to the rest of the world.

Let's take the lead, meet the revolution head-on, and make our capital the EV capital of Australia.

Dr Evan Franklin is a Senior Lecturer and Research Fellow at the ANU Research School of Engineering, with research focus on renewable energy and battery storage, and their integration into the electricity system.