Sun, Jan 28, 2018 - Page 7 News List

After years of neglect, Australia is eyeing electric cars

As skeptics fretted over price, range and lack of charging stations, Australia was overtaken by the rest of the world. Now policymakers are rethinking the issue

By Naaman Zhou  /  The Guardian

Illustration: June Hsu

In Elizabeth, South Australia, they stood in a huge line, only three months ago, and spelled out HOLDEN for the helicopters. Thirteen weeks later, after the plant closed and the last car rolled away, the talk began of rejuvenation, a new owner and the promise of “electric.”

The proposal, from British-Indian businessman Sanjeev Gupta, to refit the old Holden plant to make electric cars is still just a suggestion, but it has captured the imagination of a country suddenly keen to talk.

On Monday, the idea was backed to the hilt by South Australia Premier Jay Weatherill and the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union.

On Tuesday, Australian Minister for the Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg said the electric car would do to Australia “what the iPhone did to the communications sector.”

In November last year, Australian Minister for Urban Infrastructure Paul Fletcher announced a review into how electric cars could affect road revenue — a tacit acknowledgment that, depending on how the dice fall, they could change everything in the next decade or two.

This year, the electric car seems to be having its political moment. Most experts agree that the era of the electric car is coming — at some point. The issue is when.

Electric Vehicle Council chief executive Behyad Jafari said the future of the industry hinges on government intervention.

By global standards, Australia is lagging behind. Only 0.1 percent of all new car sales in Australia in 2016 were electric, and that was actually down 23 percent on the year before. Other nations are powering ahead — Norway at 29 percent, the Netherlands at 6 percent and China, France and the UK at 1.5 percent of new cars in the same year.

Jafari has called on the government to introduce a temporary tax, stamp duty or licensing fee exemption for electric cars — to “kickstart” the industry — and a national plan of action.

“The government has thought the issue is a lack of model availability and charging infrastructure, but in fact they are symptoms of our problem,” he said. “There is a lack of certainty that the market will do well. In every other country there is policy support, but that doesn’t exist here.”

If the government pulls the right policy levers, the industry will follow, he said.

Last year, the UK and France announced that they would ban the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars by 2040. Volvo announced it would make only electric or hybrid cars from next year.

In Australia, the government provides a discount on the luxury car tax threshold for low-emission vehicles and companies can earn carbon credits by buying “electric” — but the industry wants more.

The Australian Department of the Environment and Energy’s current prediction is that electric cars will be 15 percent of new vehicle sales by 2030. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) predicts 20 percent by 2035 and the Australian Energy Market Operator predicts between 16 percent and 45 percent by 2036.

“I’m not in the business of setting projections, because they’re always wrong,” Jafari said. “Every year the battery technology becomes more effective and cheaper at a faster rate than anyone predicts. The predictions of uptake and driving range are reforecast higher every year.”

“The question is, do you want to take into account projections based on how things have been so far and assuming nothing changes? Or projections for what happens if Australia gets its act together and provides support?” Jafari asked.

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