Yesterday’s announcement that AGL and Macquarie Bank are planning to spend $1 billion to build an electric-vehicle charging network in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane is yet another indicator that the carbon crunch could be the saviour of Australia’s automotive industry (see my previous post on this subject).
The car companies are slowly tooling up for all-electric vehicles, although progress is being hampered by the temporary insanity of hybrids. Meanwhile, many early adopters are taking matters into their own hands and building their own electric cars.
Last weekend I had a look at some examples at the Field Day organised by the Sydney branch of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association.
Most of the vehicles on display were conversions done by dedicated owners. The process is quite straight forward. Take a car of your choice, take out the petrol engine and everything associated with it (cooling system, fuel tank, starter, alternator etc) and install an electric motor, batteries and controller.
A typical conversion
Â Engine compartment gutted and a small electric motor installed.
The performance of the converted car can be whatever you want, it only depends on budget. Acceleration and top speed is determined mainly by motor size and range by battery type and capacity. The battery is the Achilles heel and the most expensive part. Traditionally, various styles of lead-acid battery have been used, but these are very heavy and lose efficiency after only a couple of hundred charges. The newer Lithium iron phosphate (LiFEPO4) batteries are dramatically lighter for equivalent powerm, and should last ten times longer. They are, of course, many times the price, although this will no doubt change once production volumes rise.
Cost of the materials to convert a typical car is roughly $2000 for the motor, $2000 for the controller and $5,000-10,000 for LiFEPO4 batteries. There is a useful collection of links to Australian EV component suppliers on the Zero Emission Vehicles Australia website.
A classic VW beetle conversion
Typical scene under the hood of a homebrew EV
The owner of the bike below built the whole thing for under $2000, including the bike. The motor is small and nearly silent. You’d be able to drive this bike into an apartment building for parking. Top speed is 70km/h which is quite adequate for getting around town.
As I explained in my article published recently on Crikey, The Great Hybrid Swindle, fully electric cars are much more environmentally friendly than hybrids, and also very much cheaper to drive. Even if they are recharged using coal-fired electricity, they have a better carbon footprint. I calculate that for average city driving, the daily energy required can be captured from a modest solar array on the roof of your house, resulting in absolutely cost-free and emission-free driving for most people. If you drive somewhere that does not a powerpoint for recharging, the solar panels pump electricity into the grid during the day, and you charge the car overnight.
The Rudd Government has made a strong commitment that Australia will play a leading role in development and application of green car technology. They have issued the Green Car Challenge, pledging to purchase environmentally-friendly vehicles for the Commonwealth fleet if they are produced in Australia.
The 2008 Review of Australia’s Automotive Industry recommended bringing forward the Green Car Innovation Fund to 2009 and doubling the grants to $1bn. It also proposed the inclusion of transportation in the new emissions trading scheme. This carrot-and-stick approach will be a huge boost to local green car initiatives.
The future of driving does not involve petrol. AGL and Macquarie have obviously caught on to that idea.
Perhaps the Australian car industry, being quite tiny by world standards, will be able to change course more quickly than their global counterparts.