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Electric Cars Are About to Turn the Corner

By Ian Lowe

Will decreasing battery costs finally enable the electric car to take off?

I used to show my students a quote that acclaimed it as the car of the future: clean, efficient, quiet and non-polluting. All it needed, the proponent said, was an advance in storage beyond the lead-acid battery, and that advance was “just around the corner”. That article was written in1903!

More than 100 years later, the biggest obstacle to the electric car is still the cost and capacity of energy storage, which limits the range of these vehicles. But that corner might finally be in sight.

Writing for The Conversation recently, a University of Melbourne PhD candidate documented the dramatic improvement in the cost of lithium-ion batteries. Valentin Muenzel notes that “the battery in typical mid-range electric car stores around 25 kilowatt-hours of energy”. Until recently, the cost of these battery-packs was typically around US$1000/kWh, making the electric car a luxury item. The weight of lead-acid batteries was also a problem, so much of the car’s energy was wasted moving the batteries around.

Now the Stockholm Environment Institute estimates the average cost of lithium-ion packs is down to $410/kWh, with “market-leading manufacturers such as Nissan and Tesla… seeing prices around US$300 per kWh”. That led Muenzel to the conclusion that “the cost of electric car batteries may be as low as $7500 today and reducing to $5000 by 2020”.

This may be the long-awaited turning of the corner. Since 2011, the number of electric vehicles on the roads around the world has doubled every year, admittedly from a very low base. Tesla has committed to investing US$5 billion in a huge battery factory that they hope will achieve economies of scale and drive prices down more rapidly.

The prospect of large numbers of electric cars provides new opportunities for smart grids and more use of renewable energy technologies, especially wind power which can be used to charge batteries overnight when electricity demand is low.

On the local scene, Tesla is installing a so-called “supercharging station” at Goulburn to make it practical for electric cars to drive between Sydney and Canberra. The new station will fully charge an electric car’s battery pack in half an hour, a reasonable time for the driver to have a coffee and recharge the personal batteries for the second half of the drive.

The 1903 writer may eventually be proven correct. Certainly the replacement of petrol and diesel vehicles by electric models will have a wide range of benefits, especially by improving urban air quality. If the power comes from renewables there will also be significant reductions in the greenhouse gas implications of transport.

Energy White Paper Needed a Shade of Green

The Abbott government’s long-awaited Energy White Paper was depressingly predictable and predictably depressing. It wasn’t all bad, with at least an emphasis on the need to improve energy productivity: the amount of energy needed to produce the average dollar of economic outcomes.

Australia’s figure is significantly worse than the OECD average, largely because of the enthusiastic promotion of energy-intensive activities like mining. We also still subsidise fossil fuel supply and use.

There is no doubt that our performance could be improved. The 2003 government report on energy efficiency concluded that our energy use (and related carbon dioxide emissions) could be reduced by 30% using only proven technology with a payback time of less than 4 years. It is a public scandal that most of those gains have still not been realised.

Where the White Paper is critically deficient, like the politicised Intergenerational Report, is its failure to recognise the imperative of climate change. Australia needs to be going to the December UN conference in Paris with a credible plan for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.

The government is still holding out for a dramatic cutback in the 2020 renewable energy target, causing a complete stall of large-scale installations. Only one project worth $6.6 million was approved in the first quarter of 2015, compared with about $46 million investment in the same period last year.

At the same time, ordinary citizens are still voting with their roofs. About 195 MW of rooftop solar energy was installed in the first quarter of the year, up 7% on last year.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.