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While sales of electric cars are accelerating in China, Europe and the United States, in Australia they have stalled. Do battery-powered cars have a future on our roads?

Duane Robinson believes electric cars are the way of the future and is doing his bit to develop the infrastructure needed to encourage more motorists to adopt them.

A senior lecturer and Deputy Director of the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) Sustainable Buildings Research Centre, Dr Robinson has overseen the installation of electric vehicle charging stations at the University’s main Wollongong Campus and at its Innovation Campus.

The charging stations will collect data on electric vehicle usage and charging requirements, which will be used to improve understanding of the demand requirements and power quality impact of these vehicles on the electricity grid.

“In 2015, UOW was successful in applying for a Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities grant from the Australian Research Council. The grant is a research collaboration with the University of Sydney, the University of Newcastle and UOW and was used to set up a smart grid testing facility for experimental research in the area of distributed resources, including applications of electric vehicles, electric vehicle charging stations and energy storage units,” Dr Robinson says.

Duane Robinson (SBRC), Raymond Gunn (iC Management) Kashem Muttaqi (APQRC) and Anthony Middleton (ChargePoint) at the SBRC electric vehicle charging station. Photo: Paul Jones

Electric cars gaining momentum

Worldwide sales of electric vehicles, or EVs as they are known, are gaining momentum and the automotive industry is changing rapidly to keep up.

An EV has far fewer moving parts than a conventional petrol- or diesel-powered vehicle. There’s no need for liquid fuels or oil changes. There’s no transmission or timing belt to fail when you least expect it. In fact, most of the maintenance costs associated with an internal combustion engine are eliminated.

Australians have usually been early adopters of “green” technologies, with many being quick to shift to things like rooftop solar generation and household battery storage. However, while electric cars have long been touted as the next big thing in motoring, sales of electric cars in Australia have almost come to a halt.

According to a 2016 Australian Energy Market Operator report, electric vehicles, including electric-petrol hybrids, accounted for just 0.2 per cent of the roughly 1.1 million vehicles sold in Australia in 2015. AEMO forecasts EV sales of 276,800 vehicles per annum by 2036.

The lack of charging stations and lack of interest from power mains operators in integrating EVs into smart grids needs to be addressed.

Professor Pascal Perez

By way of comparison, China has the world’s largest stock of highway-legal, light-duty, plug-in electric vehicles with cumulative sales of more than 645,000 plug-in electric passenger cars.

The United States ranks second with more than 570,000 plug-in electric cars sold in the seven years to this year. In Europe, sales of battery-powered cars soared 38 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

So, why is Australia not following overseas trends, and do EVs have a future on our roads?

Australia in the slow lane

As a viable alternative to fossil fuel vehicles you might think the electric vehicle would be an exciting and much needed environmentally friendly option in Australia. Unfortunately, while a greater uptake of low and zero-emission cars would help meet climate change targets and air-quality goals, electric cars pose a number of challenges.

Apart from the ever-present fear of change accompanying any behavioural or cultural shift, there are sound reasons why we are not all driving electric cars. One barrier to buying an EV is the lack of a public charging infrastructure.

There are currently three public charging stations in Wollongong, and most charging stations are confined to cities. This makes electric cars more suited to the major cities, where they can be used for the daily commute to work.

In regional Australia, where there are greater distances between urban centres, electric vehicles need to address issues like the availability of charging stations, the cost of electricity over fuel and a population that will not invest in electric vehicles until there is infrastructure to support them.

The three major manufacturers producing electric vehicles on the Australian market are Nissan (for about $55,000), BMW ($70,000) and Tesla (starting price $130,000).

Professor Zaiping Guo is working on advanced battery technology for electric vehicles. Photo: Paul Jones

Professor Pascal Perez, Director of UOW’s SMART Infrastructure Facility, says until there is a national the roll-out of infrastructure, such as public charging stations on highways or in shopping centres, electric vehicle take-up will remain low.

“The lack of charging stations and lack of interest from power mains operators in integrating EVs into smart grids needs to be addressed,” Professor Perez says. “Then there’s also the lack of standardisation across brands and technologies. The Tesla charger for instance is incompatible with other EV brands.”

Another impediment to wider electric car use in Australia is the lack of government incentives to encourage their purchase, making Australia the only first-world country not to offer a subsidy to help cover some of the upfront cost of buying an electric car.

Solving the battery problem

Despite these impediments, Professor Zaiping Guo, a Future Fellow at UOW’s Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences and the Institute for Superconducting and Electronic Materials, is optimistic about the future for EVs in Australia.

“Not too long from now, most cars will be electric,” she says. “Electric cars are far more efficient than any other kind of car. There’s just one major problem – the battery itself.”

A team of UOW researchers led by Professor Guo is developing the next-generation of high-energy-density lithium-ion batteries, with funding from Tianneng Battery Group, one of China’s largest battery manufacturers.

The SBRC’s energy efficient design allows the electric car charing point to draw most of its charge from a solar power generation system.

“If we use a current lithium-ion battery for an electric car the driving range is very limited because the energy density is still relatively low,” Professor Guo says.

“By replacing the graphite-based anode with a silicon/carbon anode we can potentially increase the energy density by 50 per cent – which would significantly increase the driving range of an electric car.”

Professor Guo says the battery her team is developing will be being used commercially in EVs within three to five years.

Electric cars are far more efficient than any other kind of car. There’s just one major problem – the battery itself.

Professor Zaiping Guo

Taking charge on campus

Dr Robinson believes having electric charging stations on campus will be the start of a network of similar stations throughout the region. He says more and more companies are willing to go green as both corporations and governments place more importance on lowering CO2 emissions when purchasing vehicle fleets.

“The Sustainable Buildings Research Centre at UOW’s Innovation Campus is a state-of-the-art energy efficient building which has incorporated a number of technologies to reduce its overall impact on energy resources and the environment.

“As such the service vehicle of the Centre was chosen to be an electric vehicle, which now largely derives its energy from the building’s own solar photovoltaic generation system,” Dr Robinson says.

The UOW electric car fleet currently consists of two operational EVs, one based at the main campus and the other at the Innovation Campus. These cars have dual roles, operating as both service and research vehicles.

Two other vehicles under development at UOW’s smart grid testing facility will incorporate vehicle-to-grid systems, which enable the energy stored in the vehicle to be downloaded to the electricity grid at times of high demand.

While currently in Australia electric cars are being used by only a few early adopters, the University of Wollongong along with other individuals, companies and universities is leading the charge to change.

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