For anyone who watched The Jetsons cartoon growing up, the future of transport could be summed up in two words: flying cars. But you probably didn’t fly to work today in a four wheeler. You might have driven there in an electric car though, an idea for the future first dreamed up in 1828. Back in the 1800s no one talked about reducing our carbon footprint but their ideas for a different kind of car have become an increasingly viable way for us to step into our future.
So what are electric cars? 'Ordinary' cars are powered by internal combustion engines fuelled by petrol or diesel. In really simple terms, electric vehicles (EVs), have a rechargeable battery and an electric motor. To charge up the battery you need to plug the car into an electric power point - just like charging a cell phone.
There are two types of EVs. Pure plug-in EVs, like the Nissan Leaf or the Tesla S, get their power solely from plug in battery charge. Plug-in hybrids hedge their bets by getting juice from two sources; petrol or diesel, and a rechargeable plug-in battery. The Audi E-tron and the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV sit in this camp.
Hybrids, like the Toyota Prius, also power up with both traditional fuel sources and electricity. However, they’re not really considered ‘true’ EVs because they don’t plug in to get electricity. Instead, they recharge their batteries by capturing energy normally lost when braking or by generating electricity from the internal combustion engine. While hybrids were the first to capture the market in New Zealand, it’s plug-in EVs that are being adopted more than ever before.
The most common way to charge a plug-in EV is at home in your garage overnight. New Zealand’s 230-volt electricity system means it's easy to charge up using the same power point you’d use for your power tools. It takes around six to eight hours to fully charge up. But if you don’t have a spare eight hours, you’ll want to get an EV with rapid charge capabilities so you can go from empty to 80% in less than 25 minutes.
Overseas trends show that most EV owners want to be able quickly 'top up' their charge at any opportunity. The first public rapid charging station in New Zealand opened in Whangarei in 2014. This month Z Energy and Charge.Net.NZ are installing six Tritium Veefil rapid charging stations at sites in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. These rapid chargers deliver up to 50kW of DC power directly into an EV’s battery and can top up an entry level EV, like a Nissan Leaf, in the time it takes to buy and drink a cup of coffee. If your EV is running on empty a "fill up" will only cost between $5-$10 and give you 120kms of range (the distance you can drive before you'll need to top up). Given the average Kiwi commute in urban centres only clocks in at 22 kms per day, this more than covers most needs.
EVs have been on the roads in New Zealand since 2011 and their numbers are steadily growing. By the end of 2015 there were 695 registered EVs, up from 467 in 2014. Owning an EV might still seem out of this world, especially if you've only heard about the luxury EVs coming out of Tesla, Audi and Mercedes Benz's factories with a price tag to match their high-end brands and the promise of features like self driving capabilities. But a standard EV is actually cheaper than you might think. The Nissan Leaf, for example, costs about $40,000 or $20,000 if you buy it second hand.
Over the life of an EV the average operating costs are lower than a petrol-powered car with less maintenance (say goodbye to oil changes and tune ups) and a more efficient ride. EVs can convert 90% of the energy from their batteries into driving, which is streets ahead of petrol or diesel cars at 20-30%, and adds up to savings of about $2,000 per year in “fuel” costs. Because EV owners in New Zealand don't have to pay road user charges until 2020, at an average travel of 14,000 kilometres per year, they also pocket around $700 in savings annually.
The major benefits of EVs are not only felt by your wallet but by the planet. Last year the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) commissioned an analysis on the environmental impact of EVs in New Zealand. The results show EVs are a great choice for the environment. With no tail pipe, plug-ins don’t produce exhaust fumes that cause local air pollution and they're eerily quiet, reducing noise pollution too. They also have a much smaller carbon footprint. Compared with petrol or diesel cars, EECA found plug-in EVs emit 60% fewer climate change emissions over their lifecycle, even taking in to account manufacture and shipping costs.
The really exciting part for Kiwis is how we’ll be running our EVs. Because 80% of our electricity is generated by renewable resources, the juice for our plug-in EVs comes from the sun and the wind. It not only sounds cool but it equates to an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions. Could we all be cruising off of clean green energy? In short, yes. There’s enough renewable generation projects on the cards to ensure that even if every car on Kiwi roads was plugging in to fuel up, our needs could be covered by 100% renewable energy. That’s a massive change in the way we think about fuel and a vision of the future to get charged up about.