OPINION / Electric Vehicles, Foreign Fuel and the Australian Weekend

Personal experience and national statistics tell me that electric cars have taken off in Australia and the trend is unstoppable, despite the resistance of the Federal Coalition which is on the take from fossil industries.

And the take-off is just as well because we can now add national security to economic good sense and better health as reasons for the urgent conversion of fossil fuel fleets to electric and hydrogen power. More on security anon.

Many bemoan the fact that EVs comprised only two per cent of sales in 2021. But that is nearly treble the year before. It marks the beginning of exponential growth.

For quite some time very few people have had any personal experience of EVs. Few had even been in one, let alone driven one. That is changing rapidly.

It might be as important as subsidies. The best advertisement is personal recommendation. Everyone who has had a ride or a drive in our electric car goes “Wow”.

Some reasons are obvious: the quiet (music plays as in a concert hall) and the impressive gearless acceleration.

Some reasons, like free fuel are mixed with concerns about range, availability of charging stations and the time to top up. Listening to people’s personal experience allays these fears. Our EV has a range of 430kms. We have only ever powered it from free rooftop solar and the charger can be programmed to do that automatically. Moreover, we have free access to an Australia-wide network of charging stations for five years.

The continuing rise in fuel prices (which is now threatening the Australian weekend) will only boost EV take-up.

Other benefits are less obvious: better health from fewer pollutants and helping the fight against global heating.

Others still have to be explained. An electrically powered vehicle can do things remotely from a phone app that would otherwise require the engine to run. Leave the car in a hot carpark and you can turn on the air-con at a stated time before you want to leave.

Just doubling EV purchases every year from the present 20,000 will mean that within six years almost all purchases will be electric and with a growing second-hand market and the incentive of ever-increasing fuel and maintenance costs, we can expect virtually the whole fleet of 20 million to be converted in about 10 years, maybe sooner – as digital cameras replaced film cameras.

And that is on a 2021 projection with a Federal Government doing all it can to stop the take-up.

However, as with so many federally created policy vacuums, the states are filling them. Last week, Queensland became the fourth state to offer a $3000 direct subsidy on electric vehicles. All states and territories offer other help, like subsidising charging infrastructure, registration cuts, and interest-free loans.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine makes the conversion more urgent.

In round figures, Australia imports 80 per cent of its fuel requirements – at a cost of $43 billion a year, more than the value of our coal exports. Of that, three-quarters comes in refined and a quarter comes in as crude and is refined here.

In short, we have a heavy and costly dependence on foreign fuel which could and should be reduced to near zero quickly.

But at least the supply is diverse and close: South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Malaysia, providing the vast bulk. Virtually no Russian crude ends up as refined fuel in Australia and Chinese crude provides less than 10 per cent of our refined fuel.

That said, we should still be worried. Reserves are down to 1.5 days, and much of that is only notional and stored in the US.

With the Russian invasion, countries banning imports from Russia (which supplies 12 per cent of world oil) will source elsewhere, including places where Australia gets its fuel. That will cause prices to rise even more and supplies to be less secure, with rippling effects through our economy.

We should be getting smarter sooner. We should be embracing and leading the third industrial revolution.

These revolutions are based on three radical changes: in energy sources, communications, and transport. The first began in Britain with coal, the telegraph and steam-driven rail. The second began in the US with oil, the telephone, and the car. And the third is happening before our eyes with renewables, the internet, and shared mobility (the combination of autonomous vehicles, shared vehicles and smart public transport).

Notice that the three elements of the third industrial revolution are all eminently shareable. And the cost of extra sharing is almost nothing, whether it is internet content; electricity from micro-grids or community grids; or the use of shared transport.

The smart electric vehicle is a step towards that. There will be plenty of jobs in the transition: building solar and wind farms; re-jigging the electricity grid; and recycling the stranded fossil assets of vehicles and power plants.

Global heating makes it urgent. The Russian invasion makes it more urgent because fossil fuels are the lifeblood of corruption and autocracy – in Russia, the Middle East, South America, and Africa. And they are (pardon the pun) oiled by international corporate secrecy and lawyers and accountants in rich western countries.

This is not a war between Russia and Ukraine. It is a war between two different groups: Putin, the Russian oligarchs and their enablers in the west’s financial system and fossil-supported political parties, on one hand, and the Ukrainian people and and their democracy, repressed Russian people and conscripts and the rest of the powerless people on earth, on the other – all living in the same fragile biosphere.

Supporting fossil industries; indolence in transitioning to renewables; and weak action on corporate secrecy is inexcusable. And hand-wringing in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is vapid hypocrisy.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 22 March 2022.


Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor  |  ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia


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