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Week Thirty-Nine - Electric Cars

Replacing a petrol or diesel car with an EV saves 1.6 tonnes CO2e per person per year

My kindergartner

- Mummy, what does our car eat?

Me

- The unshed tears of future generations.

Cartoon car emitting fumes and smog

Author's note: I held this post back given the climate & bushfire crisis. Buying a new car is a low priority for many of us simply trying to get through the next emergency. But I've decided to go ahead so I can complete my project to reduce carbon footprints by 75%. I want to get the word out on how to tackle climate change effectively. It's more important than ever.

How much CO2e comes from urban transport?

Urban transport generates a lot of carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions (CO2e). In Week Thirty-Six I found urban transport each year generates around 3 tonnes CO2e for the average Australian, almost 2 tonnes CO2e for the average Canberran and 1.1 tonnes CO2e for me. Most of that comes from our cars. I saved a chunk of carbon by leaving my car at home and using active transport and public transport, but what happens if you really need to drive (like when choking smoke keeps you off your bike)?

How much CO2e comes from urban driving?

Most of us drive petrol or diesel cars which have an internal combustion engine (ICE). ICE cars are becoming increasingly outdated around the world, with streets, states and entire countries phasing them out in favour of electric vehicles (EV). Australia's been hooked on ICE but our EV uptake is finally increasing. If you can't get around town with public and active transport, your best bet might be an EV.

How much CO2e would an Electric Vehicle save?

While EVs are often advertised as 'zero emissions', there's no such thing in real life. An EV contains embedded carbon to make the car and battery (but the impact of this isn't high enough over the life of the car to justify hanging on to an old gas-guzzler). The grid then generates carbon to create and transport electricity. The amount varies in different jurisdictions. Coal-fired Victorian power emits a lot. The ACT's 100% renewable grid emits virtually nothing. But all grids could become renewable soon, particularly if governments are smart enough to spot the apocalyptic shift in public opinion. Even if your state grid is dirty right now, switch to EV to make a difference down the track. You can also take matters into your own hands by installing rooftop solar or buying green power to run that EV.

By simply swapping an EV for an ICE car, the average Canberran using our 100% renewable grid would slash a whopping 1.6 tonnes CO2e from their footprint. The average Australian would slash 1.2 tonnes CO2e from their footprint, even though their grid uses coal. I drive less than the norm, but I would still cut 882 kilograms CO2e with an EV.

Good grief. We should all swap over immediately.

What are EVs like to drive?

I test drove a Nissan Leaf. I don't like cars. I liked this one. It was quiet, luxurious, roomy, responsive and safe. The Leaf gets 270 kilometres on a full charge, plenty for around town. Charge time is overnight on a cheap wall cable at home or a mere 40 minutes on a super-charger. But fuelling up an EV is not like fuelling up an ICE car at the bowser. You don't have to go out of your way, queue up behind other drivers and make a chore of it. Think of it like charging your phone. Plug it in when you get home and you'll never run out.

What about a weekend away (or fleeing from a bushfire...)?

ScoMo said EVs would kill the weekend away. Climate-change induced bushfires and smoke are a greater threat where I'm standing, but when the world returns to normal (if only) Canberra's Dave Southgate shows the EV's weekendability. Most will manage 250 - 300km on a charge. For longer trips in an EV, stop halfway at an EV charge station and boost for 30-60 minutes while you grab lunch. The break will reduce fatigue crashes. If your family only has one car and you remain concerned about range, consider a Hybrid instead. But for any car primarily making urban trips, an EV has range to spare.

Public charge station in Batemans Bay NSW (photo from early December before the town burned); a 2019 Nissan Leaf on the showroom floor.

What does an EV cost?

The bad news is that EVs are still pricey. At almost $55,000, the Leaf is much more than I've ever paid for a car and it's one of the cheapest on offer.

The good news is the price is falling, there are some cheaper deals around and the purchase price improves when you factor in lifetime fuel and service costs. EVs have few moving parts which means less servicing and replacements. At 34c per kilowatt hour versus $1.53 per litre, electricity is cheaper than petrol. You might even get some electricity for free if you install rooftop solar or use free public or work charge stations. An EV doing 20,000 kilometres per year could save you $14,000-$18,000 over eight years.

Secondhand EVs are quite cheap. I found a decent 2013 model with low mileage for under $15,000. But because it's an old model, the range was only 120 kilometres per charge. This would suit a family as a second city car but won't work for us as our sole vehicle, so I'll save up for a new one.

You can could also cut your household electricity use by 30% with simple home efficiency measures. This will help out the grid and your hip pocket when running that EV.

How should governments support EVs?

In other countries, EVs took off with government support. Here in the ACT, the government eliminated EV stamp duty and is running bulk-buy government fleet purchases. More is needed and most states and the federal government aren't backing EVs at all, despite the massive public health and climate change benefits. Governments could subsidise the EV purchase price, install free EV charge stations and parking or offer free EV registration.

Long-term, governments will get less petrol tax. But every climate change transport solution cuts petrol use, whether its EVs, public or active transport, so we might as well pivot now.

What about congestion?

EVs still have an environmental impact. There are embedded emissions (although these are fairly low over the car's life). There's also congestion which increases carbon through knock-on effects. Each car in a peak hour traffic jam increases the emissions for all the other cars by increasing stop-start driving and idling at lights. This means that in a congested city, your EV increases tailpipe emissions for other people's ICE cars. The Queensland Government indicates that peak hour congestion in Australia's six major cities accounts for around 13 million tonnes of CO2e each year (adding up to half a tonne CO2e per person). Our next car will be green, but we'll still drive less.

What about hybrids?

Hybrids use both electricity and petrol. They're not as green as EVs but if an EV won't suit you, you should consider a Hybrid. Hybrids have higher servicing costs because they have both an EV battery and an ICE moving-parts engine. Having said that, Hybrids work in situations where EVs don't, such as a sole family car that needs to drive big distances without refuelling or a car pulling a trailer. Anyone in the market for a car should consider EVs and Hybrids first and ICE cars last.

Notes, data and spreadsheet calculations in the 'Notes' section, Week Thirty-Nine.

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