10 Jun 2021

How realistic is electric car route to carbon-neutral future?

8:57 pm on 10 June 2021

Electric car use is one of the cornerstones of the Climate Change Commission's advice to the government on how to become carbon neutral, but how feasible is it?

A plugged in electric car.

Electric cars make up just a tiny fraction of the country's vehicle fleet. Photo: 123RF

The Commission wants to see a rapid increase in electric vehicle sales to combat the amount of emissions coming from transport.

As it stands, electric cars make up just a tiny fraction of the country's entire vehicle fleet.

Road transport is the driving force behind nearly half of all of New Zealand's CO2 emissions.

Reducing it is one of the Climate Change Commission's main focal points on how to reduce the country's overall carbon footprint.

The Commission wants to steer away from petrol and diesel cars, and turn towards EVs, but with most costing tens of thousands of dollars, price is a formidable barrier.

"I've had conversations with people over the years about how it's a lot more affordable to have an electric car, but you have to have the money to buy an electric car," said Alexia, who lives in Lower Hutt.

"I would totally have an electric car if I could, but there's no way I could afford to buy an electric car at the start."

Mileage is a big problem as well - many people are concerned about the practicalities of long-distance driving in an EV.

On the question of both mileage and price, Grey District Mayor Tania Gibson said neither worked for her residents.

"We live in a very hilly, isolated area. Where are these electric vehicles coming from?

"We're in a very low socio-economic area. A new electric car is $50,000 a pop really. We have no public transport. So how are they going to afford these changes in the next 10 years?"

In some parts, the popularity of electric vehicles is increasing however.

Bruce Stewart, the owner of Coventry Cars in Lower Hutt - one of the first dealers to have a caryard selling only EVs or hybrids, with 80 vehicles on site - said their success was probably down to their role in this niche market.

"Sales are generally heading up in electric and hybrid, and generally heading down in petrol and diesel.

"But that is probably more from our point of view, as a business thing, that's what we target. We're targeting something most other dealerships don't have, in terms of electric and hybrid."

He said price would always be an issue.

"I don't believe there's ever going to be an electric car that's less than $3000 or $4000, because a battery is almost worth that.

"It's definitely a problem for people who can't afford much more than a $3000 or $4000 car, and I think that is a fairly big space in the market."

He said EV buyers needed to know what to expect, and the more money put in, the more mileage they would get out.

Scientists think biofuels could help replace fossil fuels to power heavy vehicles, boats and aeroplanes, but most current batteries are too heavy for larger vehicles, and hydrogen is still being developed.

A researcher at SCION, Dr Paul Bennett, told Midday Report forestry leaves about 4 million tonnes of green waste behind each year, which could make about half-a-billion litres of biofuel.

He said such fuels could cut carbon emissions by about 85 percent.

The Climate Change Commission wants to see a rapid increase in electric vehicle sales.

But the challenge is huge: just 26,000 cars out of a national fleet of 4.6 million are electric - that works out as 0.52 percent.

By 2035, the Commission wants nearly all light vehicles entering the country to be electric so that by 2050, all road transport is decarbonised.

Some are wondering whether that's just implausible, and think other environmentally friendly solutions like biofuels or hybrids need to be part of the government's strategy.

AA policy and research manager Simon Douglas said supply chains also needed to be considered.

"Nissan, in their entire history of producing Nissan Leafs, have produced 500,000 of them, to supply the whole world.

"New Zealand is such a small part of that market that we really have to think hard about how heavily we're depending on EVs and their availability," he said.

He said while production would pick up, the government still needed to look at other strategies.

Douglas said any changes should not penalise ordinary New Zealanders who would like a lower-emissions vehicle but could not afford one.

The Climate Change Commission's advice also aimed to reduce car-dependency by improving other modes, such as walking, cycling or public transport.

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