Two conversations a few days ago made me think again about the electric vehicle, that proposed panacea for all our energy ills. One of my granddaughters has an important role in the advertising of the new VW concept car series that promises just about everything, and she is excited about them. She lives and works in New York City, and the cars are not yet for sale. What none of them has is a long run before recharging — about 500 km seems to be the limit. Anyway, the series is said to be launched in 2020, and when Australia gets them, and how much they will cost are matters beyond my search so far.
I’ll start with the more sobering of the two conversations, which flowed from a statement made by Senator Jim Molan some little time ago that Australia only had about three weeks’ supply of oil and petroleum, and was in real danger should a conflict erupt that threatened supply. The ABC ‘fact-checked’ his statement and found that he was spot on. About 75 per cent of our crude oil and 55 per cent of our petroleum comes from overseas. And while we are a producer, much of it comes from our northwest, where Asian refineries are much closer than those in Victoria and Queensland. We have four refineries, two in Victoria, and one each in Queensland and Western Australia. Together they produce around fifty per cent of our transport needs, and about 65 per cent of our petroleum. Where does the fuel come from? All over the place, but mostly in the Pacific region, especially Singapore. I learned a lot, and did my own research afterwards, as well.
How serious is the threat? Or rather, how likely is it that our fuel supply would be compromised were there a major conflict in the Middle East, say? I don’t know. There is a good deal of sabre-rattling going on in the world at the moment, and one can never be sure about what will happen next. The fact that there is a global trading system of great size that is important to every country won’t prevent conflict. It didn’t in 1914, when conventional wisdom proclaimed that war was impossible because the European economies were so closely interlinked through trade. The military took over, and trade was not important to them. The same would be the case now, I think, if a hot war began, though we might be more skilled in averting the war than were the European governments in 1914.
Our conversation, with a former neighbour, an engineer, moved into what anyone could do about this. His solution was more and more electric vehicles, which would take some pressure off petroleum supply. Given that about 90 per cent of Australians live in big cities, and that most cars are used for commuting, there is a decent case there. He thought that alternative energy might supply more of the energy needed to get the EVs going, but that wasn’t his point; climate change wasn’t, either. My response, rather later than the conversation itself, was twofold: there was abundant coal, and in a crisis we would use it. Indeed, if there were a real crisis the Federal Government could use wartime powers to get oil exploration and fracking going quickly. It might be late, but it would happen. During the second world war you could see a few cars beetling around with producer gas balloons on their roofs, the gas coming from a somewhat complicated system turning coal into gas. Petrol shortages forced the Germans to make extensive use of producer gas in the same period. South Africa did the same from the1950s. My guess is that the technology will have been considerably improved in the last seventy years or so.
The second conversation had similarities, but the focus here was on urban amenity. Sydney, my son said, was badly designed for amenity, and the noise and fumes from cars made some parts of the city almost intolerable. I agreed. I lived there for ten years or so. But if EVs became more and more available the city would be quieter and less fumey, some real estate would become more attractive, and quality of life would improve. He was not interested in climate change, or where the electricity came from, just the possibility of improving the quality of life in big cities. Again, I thought there was something in it, depending on how quickly the shift to EVs occurred. Afterwards I remembered that Sydney possesses trucks as well as cars, and lots and lots of trucks. And they thundered through suburbs most of the day and some of the night.
Now there are also electric trucks. Just a small scroll via Google told me about SEA Electric in Victoria, China’s BYD team bringing electric trucks to our country, electric rubbish trucks in Melbourne, and so on. IKEA is switching to electric trucks, and wants our government to be much more active in supporting the switch to electric vehicles. How long would it take for the two million or so petrol and diesel trucks to be replaced? I have no idea, but not quickly, I think.
And that made me think of what my wife and I used to do, which was to drive long distances, not just to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, but to Cooper Creek, the Painted Desert, Birdsville and other remote locations. We wouldn’t be doing much of that in an EV. The two and a half million Australians who don’t live in big cities won’t be using EVs much, either.
I guess something like it will all happen in time. Light rail has taken a million passengers in Canberra since it opened in April for business. We may finally have fast inter-urban trains, but after my time. EV distances before recharging may get a little longer, though there hasn’t been much progress here. But Australia is a big country, and we will need lots of petrol and diesel for a long time to come.
That’s my current view, anyway. But I enjoyed the conversations and the opening of new possibilities that they produced.