When Hunter Murray drove 8,000 kilometres in his new electric car in a week, he did it to prove a point: the technology can work even for people living in the most remote parts of Australia.

“In the first week of owning this car, we went from Brisbane, down the east coast, right to the southern tip of Victoria, and then came up through South Australia back home to Alice Springs,” he said.

Mr Murray is the vice-president of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association and runs an electronics shop in Alice Springs.

He has installed one of the fastest electric vehicle (EV) chargers in the Northern Territory on the side of his shop, fuelled by a huge solar array on his roof and backed up with batteries.

He said it took him about two hours to charge his car to get 400 kilometres of driving range.

But the self-described tech geek said most people did not need that sort of range most of the time.

“And if it is, maybe they have a second vehicle that does the long-distance work.

Hunter Murray says more people would drive electric vehicles in remote Australia if there was better charging infrastructure.(ABC Alice Springs: Steven Schubert)

“There is definitely a use for electric vehicles. They’re very, very cheap to run. Very easy to drive fun to drive, and it just makes sense for family economy of scales but the environment as well.”

With vast distances between major towns, it’s little surprise that the take-up of EVs is low in remote parts of the country.

But Mr Murray has not been put off by driving the huge distances of the the Northern Territory in his EV.

He already uses it for his business, servicing remote electronic installations like mobile phone towers.

Hunter Murray uses his electric vehicle to travel to remote locations for work.(ABC Alice Springs: Steven Schubert)

He drives hundreds of kilometres a day, and said it was just a matter of being organised, and sometimes a little bit more patient.

“You fully charge at night when you’re asleep and then you top up during the day to get to at least the next town or two, while you have a coffee and a sandwich.”

Although Mr Murray has proven this technique can work to drive EVs across remote Australia, it’s not for everyone.

For EVs to become an attractive proposition for more people, the charging speeds in remote parts of the country need to become much, much faster.

How to charge in the middle of nowhere

If you drive along the transcontinental Stuart Highway south of Alice Springs, the first fuel stop is Stuarts Well Roadhouse.

Drive past the petrol bowsers, around the back near the beer garden and there’s a small three-phase power point with a little blue sign that reads “Electric Vehicle Charging Point”.

This was installed a few years ago by the roadhouse’s owner Peter Murphy, who is universally known simply as Spud.

At Stuarts Well, it would take about five hours to get 400km of driving range, a time frame few travellers would be willing to put up with.

Spud Murphy says he wants to put in a faster charging station at his roadhouse.(ABC Alice Springs: Steven Schubert)

The fastest chargers in big cities can give the equivalent charge in about 20 minutes.

According to Hunter Murray, it would cost about $150,000 to install the fastest possible charger, plus a little more for the work to be done in a remote location.

But the charger cannot just be plugged in.

The roadhouse, like most remote service stations, creates its own power using diesel generators, and Mr Murray said the ageing infrastructure would not be able to handle a fast charger.

He said installing new solar panels and batteries that could handle the system would be more than $500,000. Again, that cost would likely be higher due to the remote nature of the work.

Spud said there was “definitely a market” for fast chargers in the outback, but at the moment it was small.

But would he invest the best part of a million dollars to offer a super quick charge time, run off renewable power?

“Oh, hell yes. Certainly, the more vehicles we have through though, the more warranty there’s gonna be for that.”

It can take five hours to charge 400 kilometres of driving range at a remote roadhouse.(ABC Alice Springs: Steven Schubert)

Spud said he spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year” burning diesel to provide electricity to his roadhouse, or about 160 litres every 24 hours.

Despite the potential savings on diesel offsetting the up-front cost reasonably quickly, Spud said investing that much money was a daunting prospect.

But it was not only money on Spud’s mind.

“There’s another bonus too. You got the atmosphere. You haven’t got diesel smoke going into the air.”

Electric vehicles could be used more if infrastructure was built

One solution to the infrastructure chicken-and-egg problem is for governments and big corporations to adopt EVs right across Australia.

One of the largest employers in Alice Springs, the Central Land Council (CLC), is slowly buying a small number of EVs.

The Central Land Council owns one electric vehicle and plans to buy two more.(ABC Alice Springs: Steven Schubert)

Their fleet of 120 vehicles covers the southern half of the Northern Territory, providing services and representation for First Nations people.

“The CLC has one electric vehicle in its fleet at the moment, but we’re also planning to have another two electric vehicles in the fleet within the next six months,” executive manager of policy and governance Francine McCarthy said.

She said the CLC has installed a huge solar array on the roof of their Alice Springs headquarters, which would allow it to charge its EVs for free, which she said should offset the higher purchase price of the car.

The CLC expected the EVs to hold their value more than a petrol-powered car when it came time to sell it, so over the longer term it could be financially ahead.

Right now, the EVs will only be used as “town cars” and CLC policy will prohibit them from leaving the town limits of Alice Springs.

The CLC regularly sends staff to the most remote parts of the NT, but Ms McCarthy said it was hard to imagine using EVs that sort of work.

The Central Land Council has a huge solar array on the roof of its Alice Springs headquarters, which allows it to charge its electric vehicles for free.(ABC Alice Springs: Steven Schubert)

But, there is plenty of potential to increase their use on the Northern Territory’s bitumen highways.

“There’s no reason why if the charging infrastructure is placed in locations that are outside of Alice Springs, then the Land Council will be able to use these electric vehicles to go further afield, say up to Tennant Creek or down to Uluru,” Ms McCarthy said.

Outback Australia ignored by government

Last year the federal government spent $25 million to co-invest in charging infrastructure in regional Australia, but the money mostly went to the country’s coastal fringe.

There was nothing for the outback.

A map of fast charging stationg
There are huge gaps between Federal Government funded fast charging stations for electric vehicles.(Supplied: Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources)

Energy Minster Angus Taylor was not available for an interview, but in a statement said it was “incorrect to claim regional and remote Australia is excluded from the Morrison Government’s plans for future fuels and vehicle technologies”.

“The government is addressing charging black spots with targeted co-investment with industry through the $250 million Future Fuels Fund and has committed to building 403 fast-charging stations, including in the Northern Territory.”

Mr Murray said he was hoping the upcoming federal election might result in bigger promises for faster outback charging infrastructure.

“We’ve proven that we can drive EVs around Australia and long distance, it’s not a problem, it’s just the time to make it to do that we might need roughly double the time as normal, because of the lack of charging,” he said.

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