Juergen Zimmermann leaves his Nissan Leaf in the garage when he heads out bush.
The proud owner of one of Darwin’s few electric cars — licence plate “No Fuel” — said given it’s range of about 150 kilometres, he tends to use it for commuting around town and keeps a diesel-powered 4WD for longer road trips.
In the lead-up to the looming federal election, electric vehicles have become politically fraught, with Labor saying it wants half of all new cars sold in Australia to be electric by 2030.
Despite its criticism of this policy, the Coalition has been providing concessional loans to promote electric cars for years.
Just yesterday, the ABC reported Federal Labor’s plan to put millions of dollars towards resurrecting the Australian car manufacturing industry, centred around electric cars.
Yet questions remain about the viability of electric cars in the regions — given current models would run out of juice before most Aussie road-trippers stopped for morning tea.
Darwin electric car enthusiast Mr Zimmermann conceded that electric cars were currently most suitable for city commuters.
“The number one thing at the moment is to get uptake for the commute in the cities. I think that’s where the low-hanging fruit is,” Mr Zimmermann said.
But he believed evolving hydrogen-powered electric cars will change things, particularly as semi-trailers fuelled on hydrogen are reportedly now travelling 2,000 kilometres on a single tank overseas.
It’s forecast hydrogen vehicles could start coming onto the market this year or next.
In turn, that could drive the development of a hydrogen gas industry, which again has been described as having huge potential for Australia’s regions.
Australia’s chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel believes electric cars — whether they store energy in batteries or hydrogen bonds — are the certainly the future.
He said batteries would be used in cities for short trips, as petrol cars are today, whereas hydrogen could replace diesel in being the preferred fuel for longer journeys.
“The difference is that hydrogen is a higher-density fuel compared to batteries,” he said.
“So in those situations where you’ve got to carry a lot of cargo a long distance … a hydrogen-electric vehicle today can do things that a battery-electric vehicle can’t.
“[Hydrogen powered electric cars] are coming online and will be available this year or next, that will be able to drive nearly 2,000 kilometres with a full payload.
“That’s not practical for a battery-electric vehicle.”
He said it was hard to know whether investment would be better placed in the refuelling stations required for hydrogen power or recharging stations required for batteries.
“Really there is no simple answer to that,” Dr Finkel said.
“For long-distance heavy-duty vehicles I think hydrogen electric is the way to go but around town, battery-electric vehicles have the convenience that you can charge them at home.”
He pointed out that during the six years he had owned an electric car in Melbourne, he had only ever charged it in his garage.
While Dr Finkel said he could not comment on the business case for manufacturing electric cars in Australia, he said they were simpler to build than today’s petrol or diesel cars.
He also said it would be “fantastic” if Australia could use its abundance of lithium to manufacture batteries in the future.
Costly heating and cooling
The Northern Territory Government is set to release an electric vehicles discussion paper later this year.
But in a submission to a senate inquiry about automated mass transport, it said the need for air-conditioning in Darwin’s hot and humid climate limited the range of a driverless electric bus it trialled in 2017.
Asked whether this reliance on air-conditioning would hamstring the electric car industry in Australia’s tropical north, Dr Finkel pointed out that 53 per cent of new car sales to notoriously-cold Norway were electric this year.
“So those cars are using a lot of heating yet people are very, very happy with those electric cars,” he said.
“And it’s just going to get better as battery capacity improves.”
Chance to supply hydrogen globally
During a talk at the NT Smart Energy Summit & Expo in Darwin today, Dr Finkel also described the potential to export hydrogen gas.
Australia’s next big export industry could be its sunlight and wind, as game-changing technology makes it easier to transport and deliver their energy as hydrogen.
Last year Australia surpassed Qatar to become the world’s biggest exporter of LNG.
But as nations around the world look to replace natural gas and oil with clean-burning hydrogen gas, Dr Finkel believed Australia should harness its existing industry knowledge as well as its vast renewables resources to fill that demand.
He said the Northern Territory would be particularly well-placed, given its history in natural gas, its vast quantities of solar energy and its proximity to export markets.
“I’m seeing strong interest and awareness of the opportunity to use hydrogen domestically,” Dr Finkel said.
“But also very strong awareness of the enormous opportunity the Territory has to be an exporter supplying hydrogen, clean hydrogen, around the world.”
While hydrogen gas has been drummed up as the next “big thing” for decades, Dr Finkel said three factors had changed in recent times to make him believe in its future: global demand, plummeting production costs and plummeting utilisation costs.
‘Good luck with it’
Darwin car enthusiast Mr Zimmermann, who also works for a company with interest in the electric car space, had to jump a few hurdles to get his $34,000 vehicle to the Territory five years ago.
With no local dealers prepared to source him one, he ordered it from Adelaide and got it trucked to Darwin.
“When it came off the truck the guy said to me ‘Look, I’ve got no idea how this works, here’s the keys, good luck with it’,” he said.
There were two factors that spurred him to make the effort.
“I just want to show and demonstrate it’s possible you can do it, we took some risks as well because the servicing could have been difficult, but they’re quite reliable,” he said.
“But I’ve got two kids so I just want to show them how they probably will commute around in the future.”
And by the time they grow up, it’s likely electric cars will be able to take them much further afield that the Darwin city limits.