The onslaught against the internal combustion engine (ICE) continues apace in Europe, with a grand plan to replace them all with electric motors by 2040 to save the planet. So not to be left out, Australia now has its own evangelists shouting from the pulpits that Australia must follow suite, if not lead the way (as always). Australia’s Greens were the first to announce a plan to end the use and export of coal, as well as the sale of all ICE powered vehicles by 2030. Now the National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA) of NSW has called for the abolition of all ICE powered vehicles as early as 2025. And following quickly on their heels is the ALP who want to impose a slightly watered down version by 2030. I’m not sure where this 2030 date came from, but we are apparently lagging the rest of the world in this endeavour to return to the 1800s and only immediate and severe action will save us all.
But I wonder how much thought has really been given to this grand concept? I have no doubt that the masterminds of this idea are simplistic urban dwellers who have never ventured far from their inner-city cafes and certainly not into the dark and foreboding depths of any rural area where uncouth, beer swilling, rednecks dwell (as they must think). It’s not just that the entire idea is impractical, but it’s certain to send Australia back to the 1800’s pre-industrial era; that is, the era of the horse and cart and bullock dray. So to put all of this into perspective, I thought I’d consider the unintended consequences of such an ambitious plan and lay them out for consideration. I’m sure that I’ve missed many nuanced issues in this analysis, but that would require far more investigation than is warranted for a story on this blog.
So let’s begin with the actual provision of these electric vehicles. All of the vehicles Australian’s now buy are manufactured overseas and imported from many different countries (whether whole or in parts). If these overseas manufacturers aren’t producing electric vehicles in any great number now, given that they are very poor sellers and won’t be forced onto people until at least 2040 in Europe (if then), from where will Australia source these vehicles? This especially applies to heavy vehicles and farm machinery. But we do have a few suggesting that we produce our own electric vehicles, just adding to the need for energy of which we have less and less to go around every year. And now ‘Labor promises car cash splash to build electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles in Australia‘. Australia couldn’t sustain a regular vehicle manufacturing industry even with massive subsidies and now it’s going to try again, this time for cars few actually want but may be forced to buy or do without:
Tens of millions of dollars will be offered to the world’s automotive giants to resurrect the Australian car industry, centred around manufacturing electric and hydrogen-powered cars, under a yet-to-be unveiled Labor plan.
It is understood Labor plans to offer major carmakers research and development grants from a $1 billion fund aimed at re-stocking Australia’s manufacturing sector.
Let’s just assume that we will convert the entire Australian economy and industry to electric vehicles in every aspect of our lives by 2030 (never mind what happens to existing vehicles). How will that work out? Firstly, there will have to be a mass transition to electric vehicles and the complete halt to the sale and support of ICE vehicles, including the supply of petrol and diesel. So how will private and public vehicles, emergency services vehicles such as police, ambulance, MFB, SES, CFA, Parks Services and disaster relief power generation etc fare? I doubt very much that these will cope in metropolitan areas, let alone in regional areas. Given that electric cars tend to have a range of between 200-250 km, plus long recharge times, I’m not sure how well heavy vehicles such as ambulances or fire vehicles will cope with normal demands, or those required to traverse isolated bush tracks etc. I’m not even sure where they’ll put all the batteries required to run everything and still be within weight limits or able to carry everything they do now. Don’t expect electric fire trucks or bulldozers to fight bushfires and how would they recharge in regional and remote areas (more on this later).
So how about the transport industry? Given the distances and the weights carried by even the lightest of trucks (say in the 5 ton category) typically used around metropolitan and rural areas, how are they going to cope? The greater the carrying capacity of a vehicle, the greater the number of batteries required to cope with the loads. And if batteries add to the gross weight of a vehicle, then the load carrying capacity of the vehicle reduces commensurately. Consider that in a Tesla Model S, a vehicle with a curb weight of 1961 kg, the batteries weigh 540kg, over a quarter of the total vehicle weight. If you extrapolate that to metropolitan cargo carrying vehicles, a 5 ton vehicle will require 1.25 tonnes of batteries (probably twice that if not more), reducing its carrying and operational capacity significantly. The loss of an engine and fuel tank won’t compensate when it comes to Australian conditions. That will require much longer delivery times or more delivery vehicles on the road, as well as greater demand for recharging power. But the real problem arises when it comes to heavy transport. The reality is that they simply couldn’t function as they do now and would become uneconomical and completely impractical to operate. Though some think they can, but consider how hydrogen is produced. Again, if you’ve never ventured beyond metropolitan boundaries, you won’t have any idea of what’s really involved.
And what about farming? Farming often requires the use of heavy machinery, tractors, harvesters, ploughs and the like. These machines operate for long hours (not four hours) as well as all year round and so I can’t conceive that electric versions could, with today’s technology, function in any practical way for farm use. Many farms aren’t even on the electricity grid. So if farmers were relegated to using electric vehicles, I can see the future where our farms would mostly disappear and be replaced by more imports, or the horse and cart, horse drawn plough etc. I guess that would alleviate the need for heavy transport in Australia, as there’d be no need to transport any sort of produce from farms to city dwellers, let them look after themselves.
And then there is another significant and wide reaching impact, that being the tourism industry, supporting industries and potentially many townships. If the only vehicles available for recreational use were to be electric vehicles, that would pretty much end any towing of boats, caravans, horse floats, trailers. etc. Vehicles are already limited as to how much they can tow based on their gross weights and braking capacity, and electric vehicles will be impacted far more severely due to their inherent greater curb mass due to batteries. And then there’s the remote charging issue. It would pretty much end the ability for most people to tow anything, for any great distance. The effect of that happening would then be cumulative. No more recreation, touring or holidays involving caravans, boats, horse floats etc and no more caravan, boating, horse etc industry to support those activities. And finally tourist destinations would slowly become virtual ghost towns (not due to lack of rain). So if highways that bypassed small townships had an effect on local businesses, the effect that electric vehicles will have will make the former seem like a non-event.
And finally, as we move increasingly to 100% ‘renewable energy, we will have to face the prospect of limited charging ability of electric vehicles. If our electricity grid is already facing serious challenges as our energy regulator recently advised. The pressure that our electricity grid is experiencing with ostensibly no electric vehicles in use will collapse if all vehicles are to be electric. There will be a massive requirement for power charging units in homes (especially those with multiple cars), service stations and industry, and the grid will not cope (not without a complete rebuild). New Zealand raised the alarm on what electric car charging stations would do to the electricity grid and Australia is experiencing its own problems such that the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) is seriously worried about our existing infrastructure:
Australia’s energy sector is cleaner and greener but the speed of structural change is putting growing pressure on power system security and reliability, according to major reports issued today by the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC)
“In the face of unprecedented change we see the power system still meeting consumer’s needs but only because the system operator, AEMO, is using built-in safety-nets on a daily basis to keep the lights on,” Mrs Pearson said.
“These emergency, expensive ‘stop-gap’ measures are not meant to be used all the time.
“AEMO and transmission companies are finding it harder to manage the system in the face of fast-moving renewables penetration as consumers adopt rooftop solar in greater numbers and state, territory and federal governments all pursue their separate environmental policies.
“The Reliability Panel report shows we are starting to see falling system strength at the fringes of the grid in north Queensland, south-west NSW, north-west Victoria and continuing weakness in South Australia.
So if this all comes about, how will Australia fare? While all these feel-good ideas abound, how many truly analyse the unintended consequences of implementing even a portion of these ideas? Just forcing normal cars to all electric will cause devastating economic loss and disruption to all Australians. There will also be a significant social loss as travel is restricted and far off communities are forgotten as no one is able to travel very far and especially off the beaten track. We may well return to the 1800s where the horse ruled as the prime mode of transport, pulled ploughs and carted goods (for those who could afford them), and Shank’s Pony for the rest. Even a horse and cart could probably have completed a 95,000km journey faster than this guy in his electric car (an average speed of 3.6kmh), ‘Dutchman ends ‘world’s longest electric car trip’ in Australia‘:
A Dutchman completed an epic 95,000 kilometre (59,000 mile) journey by electric car in Sydney Sunday in a bid to prove the viability of such vehicles in tackling climate change.
The trip from the Netherlands to Australia took just over three years and was funded by public donations from around the world, including electricity to charge the Bandit, food and a place to sleep.
Now remember, these points just touch the tip of the iceberg. So as a final note, let’s say that all vehicles in Australia did go electric, what happens to all the batteries that require periodic replacement? We are talking about potentially billions of batteries that need to be disposed of on a regular basis. A typical Tesla S contains 7,104 Li-ion batteries, so multiply that by several million at least and we have a very big problem. And were the entire world to go fully electric with every vehicle, where would the materials required for the batteries come from? Where raw materials come from creates more unintended consequences.
Update 1. Another thought came to mind after I published this story and that’s to do with electric car fires. Now as the Tesla is the most prominent electric car on the market, it’s really the only reliable example of what can happen when one catches fire. From figures to date, one in every 7500 Tesla catch fire. But while the incidence of them catching fire may be around the same number as normal car fires, their numbers are quite small at the moment and the issue is with putting out electric car fires. Li-ion batteries create intense heat and can be very difficult to put out, as a recent case in the US showed, where it took 16 hours to put out a Tesla S fire. Now you imagine all our cars being electric and one catches fire in the Burnley Tunnel or similar. When you read about how much damage a small mobile phone battery fire can do, how Li-ion batteries burn, imagine the effects of a car battery pack fire in an enclosed space such as the Burnley Tunnel. While Li-ion batteries are generally safe, they are out of sight and out of mind when used in cars and will be treated no better than regular cars when it comes to maintenance and servicing. Little wonder airlines now restrict the carrying of Li-ion batteries.
Update 2. There are a couple of other things to consider, especially when it comes to rural areas. Firstly, is the reliability of power. As I noted, the AEMC is already greatly concerned about our ability to supply reliable electricity the more we move to renewables, so what happens when the power goes out? And by this I mean emergency vehicles. Currently it’s quite easy for emergency vehicles, such as an ambulance, to top up and be ready for the next call. But what happens if the ambulance has just returned from a callout and needs to recharge and the power has gone out? Secondly, if an ambulance receives a second callout while returning to its station and the battery level is down, what are they supposed to do knowing that they won’t have the capacity for a full trip, or even the ability to respond? And there’s no reason to believe that this can’t also happen in metropolitan areas.
Update 3. And this explains what I’ve discussed quite well: