How much zap to New Zealand’s EV power push?

With New Zealand’s Government having plugged in the merits of electric cars, how soon before the country powers up?

TE Waipounamu (the waters of greenstone) and Te Ika-a-Maui (the fish of Maui) – something of a mouthful for visitors but nonetheless somewhat more characterful than the names these places officially go by.

North Island. South Island. Not a lot of imagination going on there from the English land company burghers whose common usage of those impromptu titles, during New Zealand’s initial phase of European settlement, led to them becoming permanent. Would it be so difficult to switch back to the Maori originals? Apparently, yes.

At least there’s movement to sort another dull name. The route that traverses the entire length of our country, puts 2047kms on your odometer and passes some rather spectacular scenery – volcanoes and the odd lake or two and (because we know you like them) more than a few sheep stations is ripe for a more imaginative moniker than ‘State Highway One’.

One is coming. SH1 will, if ambitions work out properly, also going to be known as our primary ‘Electric Highway’, perhaps as early as in 2018.

Seen, ridden in or driven an electric car yet? The odds favouring that level of exposure are ever altering, if slowly.

Electric vehicle penetration of the overall light vehicle fleet in NZ, despite showing increase in the second quarter of this year, is still infinitesimal. All up, as of the end of June, stats suggest just 1512 NZ-new, used import and home-grown registered electrics are in fizzing around.

But we’re starting to spark up more. As you’ll know, while battery-prioritised vehicles still only achieve just 0.6% share of the global automotive market, change is occurring. The theory of technology adoption holds that once just a one percent international threshold is achieved – likely to occur within five months – we will reach the tipping point at which the tech cannot be stopped and is here to stay (though not yet set to bump out the internal combustion engine; that’ll require a 50% gain).

One thing everyone with interest in this subject agrees on is that New Zealand is ideally suited to replacing petrol and diesel-powered cars with EVs because more than 80% of our electricity is produced from renewable resources, with any increase in demand from EVs capable of being covered by renewable projects that are planned but not yet built.

All we’ve needed was some actual Government impetus to get those wheels turning. That’s finally come.

After making the industry wait for almost two years, Transport Minister Simon Bridges –  a young buck who likes to see himself as an energetic promoter of EV use – has at last provided something tangible, with a Green paper issued in May that has now just enacted in legislative form as our Energy Innovation Bill.

This is the fuel that is supposed to realise Bridges’ dream for New Zealand to become an EV Nirvana. Trouble is that the Bill and associated impetuses represent a poor octane brew.

Bridges’ singlemost vision to for the number of battery-prioritised vehicles to double in count every year so that there are 64,000 operating by 2021.

Can it be done? Not without money. Yet, even though he accepts that electric cars, by virtue of being at the top of the technology spear, are so expensive as to be too pricey for the average motorist, the most vital imperative to stirring up a buy-in – the provision of some level of State subsidy or rebates to take the edge off that cost – is not being offered.

The Bill instead restricts to pretty soft stuff: Allowance for light electric cars to run in heavy vehicle motorway lanes and for heavy EVs to be exempt of a road user levy that applies to orthodox trucks and buses and some funding for an education campaign about the joys of electric motoring. It also clarifies the legislation in respect to how electricity providers can set up vehicle recharging networks. Another intriguing developing initiative is a quietly-progressing Government decision to begin procuring EVs for the public sector in quarterly tranches from the end of this year. The focus is on fully electric and plug-in hybrids; regular hybrids, which produce electricity from their own petrol engines, will not be eligible: A slap for Toyota which, of course, is king of that world.

Without incentive, it’s going to be a big call to enlarge an actual EV pool that for now accounts represents about 0.01 percent of all the cars on our roads at present. Commentators, myself included, quickly pointed out when this goal was aired in May that achieving the target would mean some 12,000 electric vehicles entering the market every year. Which further boiled down to 250 a week … starting from six months ago. Yeah? Nah.

Basically, then, Bridges wouldn’t make a very good car salesman. Yet even though he has under-delivered, the industry is showing inclination to go along for the ride and make the best of a poor situation.

It’s a generous attitude: You could say that past Government indifference was the death of three pathfinder cars – the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Holden Volt and Nissan Leaf – that, without any particular support, failed to take hold in our Green zone and were withdrawn. A great irony that seemed to escape the ever-smiling Bridges was that, until a few weeks before his care package arrived, there were no pure EV new cars available in NZ – just used import Leafs and privately-secured new Teslas.

The arrival of the Renault Zoe was well-timed; it gave the photo op-loving Minister something relevant to arrive in on the day of his big announcement. Even so, for the next year or so, it seems likely the only fully battery-powered new vehicles that will be sold here will be the Zoe (a French Leaf, of course) and the BMW i3 and that the impetus for change will be driven much more by plug-in hybrids, more of a halfway measure because they retain a fossil-fuelled engine.

Kiwis are more attuned to PHEVs for obvious reasons; they best avoid the range anxiety that everyone dreads and is a real potential here. The negatives about PHEVs is that they take just as long to charge as full-blown electrics yet also don’t divorce us from fuel stocks that, of course, are wholly imported.

Nonetheless, the PHEV choice here is growing: Everything from the Mitsubishi Outlander up to BMW’s ‘i’ and E-Drive cars, plus the Audi e-tron models (A3 for now, Q7 and Q6 coming) and Mercedes’ comparable plug-in versions of the C-Class, GLE, S-Class and, next year, the E-Class. Oh, yes, and Tesla is finally setting up shop to tout the Model X and Model3 and to support all those independently-imported Model S sedans.

Of course, the ‘new’ scene is just part of the story here. The beauty of NZ’s unrestricted market is that we can tap into ex-overseas used cars and also even parallel import new ones.

Kiwis love hand-downs. Even though the new car market is experiencing a huge boom, we’re still buying into at least as many pre-owned cars, mainly from Japan: last year’s tally of 120,000 units will be matched, if not bettered, in 2016.

Some have argued that the fleet will never become fully electric unless large numbers of used electric vehicles can be sourced. However, in respect to this, the term ‘grey import’ seems apt. Though a load of pre-owned Leafs have come in (and some ex-Japan i3s, too), no-one seems sure how beneficial Japan can be to topping up our fleet count, because currently Japanese car buyers looking for a Green edge are showing far more conventional hybrids – which are losing sales ground here – rather than EVs.

Conceivably, they need to change that habit before we can start ours and that could take time. Conventional vehicles only typically reach a price point in Japan that makes them a cost effective used import after seven years’ driving.

It’s been conjected that, if this becomes the case for used EVs, then the numbers available to New Zealand might be between 10 and 25 percent of 30,000 in 2021-22 (3000-7500 vehicles), which is a fraction of the 120,000-150,000 used vehicles NZ is likely to buy and nothing like the count required to sustain Bridges’ dream.

There might be another way. The used vehicle industry is investigating bringing in used electric vehicles from the United Kingdom. The UK electric vehicle fleet is larger than Japan’s – 41,000 in September, 2015 –and is increasing rapidly (up from 21,000 in December 2014). At present there are 27 ex-UK used light EVs registered in New Zealand, 474 ex-Japan and 14 from other countries.

But the UK – and Europe – is clearly an EV-centric market. More than 500,000 plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles will be on European roads by the end of this year, according to a just-released forecast by the Brussels-based lobby group Transport and Environment, and the Paris motor show provided a good idea of how serious the big name brands in that part of the world have become.

At present 58 percent of import EVs are owned by individuals and 34 percent by companies, whereas with new stock it’s a bit different, 39 percent owned by companies, 48 percent by individuals. That new car weighting might continue to change as result of 30 of the country’s largest companies just having announced intention to commit to at least 30 percent of their corporate fleets being electric vehicles by 2019 – that’s 1450 extra vehicles.

What will they do with them? Most with stay around towns, but some will take road trips. Which brings us back the how this blog began. Our Electric Highway.

Announced on September 28, Charge Net is the placement of fast chargers right along the length of our main trunk highway. Over the next two years 100 DC fast-chargers will be spaced at 60km increments. This branches off an initial scheme that has already located 20 in and around Auckland and Northland.

The cost is primarily being met a private enterprise set up by electric car promoter and businessman Steve West, who made his millions as an audio software developer. However, he has a partner: BMW New Zealand. How much moolah the brand has put into Charge Net is undisclosed, but it was enough of a sum to require sign-off from Munich.

Pumping a sizeable chunk of change into the pocket of an independent provider might seem incredible altruism, yet there will be benefits for BMW. The most obvious is that BMW drivers will benefit from a cheaper electricity buy price. Also, the RFID-chipped credit card-style transponder debit card integral to the pay-as-you-go recharging will be BMW-branded. That the Charge Net stations are powered by 100 percent zero-carbon certified electricity also appeals to Germany.

The greater plus for the brand is that Charge Net seems to run on the same principles as ChargePoint, a US-centric effort working up an Electric Vehicle Express Charging Corridor across from the West to the East Coast, with recharging stations every 80kms. BMW, and Volkswagen, are big backers of ChargePoint.

Investment is a smart move because there’s potential to show off how smart their cars are. You might know of BMW’s 360 system, which uses a smartphone application and ConnectedDrive internet connectivity. This enable all sorts of driver assist functionality that, while currently of now use, will become imperative with an EV. The ability for your drive to query battery charge status and offer an advanced estimate of range on the sat nav to an ability to zero in on battery recharging points, including recommendations for replenishment when a trip of a distance exceeding a car’s absolute range is plotted, will become a major selling point, BMW believes.

ChargeNet isn’t the end of range anxiety; leave the big road – as tourists will, as the popular hotspots of Rotorua and Queenstown are well off SH1 – and you’ll still be as much at risk of running out of quick fix zap in a remote spot as ever.

Also, every ‘fast charge’ is still going to take 20-30 minutes – a much shorter time than it takes to replenish off a household plug, yes, but also an age compared to a quick servo stop. But you’ll be able to make use of that time: The chargers are likely to be set up outside of retail outlets.

Anyway, we’re finally making better use of our Green advantage.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Richard Bosselman

Richard Bosselman