Energy providers and renewable technology companies developing ‘novel’ electric car charging prototypes for the bush
By Sourced Externally
October 12, 2023
Far away from big cities, people living in remote Australia can sometimes struggle with basic energy security, let alone installing a fast charger for an electric car.
But even simply getting this technology to them is a major challenge, according to the National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA).
The NRMA’s energy subsidiary and the federal government are jointly funding a $90 million rollout of 137 fast chargers in rural and regional Australia.
NRMA Energy’s chief executive Carly Irving-Dolan said it had been confronted with many barriers.
“Fundamentally, the main barrier is the constraint on the grid,” she said.
“You’ll have places with low power, or very little power, that could only power a few houses and a roadhouse.
“In other parts, for example, where we’re going to be building [these chargers] there is actually no power there at all.”
Experts, such as Scott Dwyer from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, reiterate the challenges for charging an entire car battery in the bush.
“Electrical grids may not be reliable or they’re not on the grid,” Dr Dwyer said.
“So this is really going to call for special types of charging concepts.”
Dr Dwyer noted many remote communities were also struggling to access clean energy to power electric cars.
Many small towns in the Northern Territory, for instance, are powered by gas with backup diesel.
Now several companies are working on “novel” solutions to the problem.
Fast charging from clean energy
A former mining services company that wants to help lead the renewable energy revolution has been working on charging prototypes for the outback.
At a glance, Linked Group Service’s prototype looks like a giant steel canopy.
It has solar panels, a battery to store the renewable energy it generates, a backup diesel generator, and outlets for several cars to plug in.
The canopy could technically be installed anywhere, and not be connected to existing power networks.
“It will provide fast charging facilities in regional or very remote locations where there are constraints on the grid, or no grid at all,” co-founder Jason Sharam said.
“What we’re trying to do is implement a much faster charger that’s running off as much clean energy as possible.
“So a couple of cars can charge at once in the middle of nowhere and go on their merry way again.”
The Mackay-based company will install its prototype in a tiny Northern Territory town called Erldunda, along the Stuart Highway — one of the country’s longest roads — this month.
It is doing this in tandem with the NRMA to see if its prototype could be one solution to the organisation’s remote highway plan.
“It’s very novel,” Mr Sharam said.
The arrival of the charging prototype in Erldunda also coincides with the World Solar Challenge, an annual race of renewable-energy-powered cars through the outback beginning in late October.
How are people currently charging on the Stuart Highway?
There are already electric car chargers down the Stuart Highway, which runs for about 2,700km from the top of the country in tropical Darwin right down to South Australia.
However, most are based in the major hubs such as Alice Springs, Darwin, and Katherine, and not all of them are capable of fast charging, according to the crowdsourced website for car chargers, PlugShare.
Alice Springs resident Hunter Murray sometimes takes his Tesla down this long stretch of highway for work trips to Yulara, the town near Uluru.
“It’s a bit of planning, and it’s a big day,” he said.
The drive to Yulara from Alice Springs is 446km one-way, and takes about 4.5 hours. Even if it’s fully powered, Mr Murray’s car can’t quite make the distance without going flat.
To get around this, he usually stops in Erldunda.
Its roadhouse already has an electric car charger, however it is a slower variety that can take overnight to fully charge an electric vehicle.
Mr Murray usually stops at it to “top up” his car for an hour while having brunch and a coffee before finishing his drive to Yulara.
The installation of Linked’s new prototype at his regular coffee and charge pit stop in Erldunda has Mr Murray excited at the prospect of being able to get back on the road quicker.
“It’s about saving time,” he said.
Broadly, he wants to encourage others to get electric cars because of the cost savings he has made on petrol, which is currently rising in price.
“It’s not just about saving the planet,” he added.
Charging is even more complicated the further out you go
As well as Linked Group Service’s idea, other companies are working on off-grid solutions that use solar.
In Western Australia, a regional and remote energy provider is aiming to install 14 off-grid electric charging stations from mid-2024.
Horizon Power’s idea piggybacks off existing infrastructure that it has installed in remote locations, also with solar panels and backup diesel generators.
Cameron Parrotte, who leads Horizon Power’s engineering and project delivery team, said it will be especially useful in remote locations where charging cars from the mains could crash the grid.
“Why should EVs only be in the fancy suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne or Perth?” he said.
However, Horizon Power is also doing this as a trial only.
“You’ve got to build everything from scratch, and it’s really hard to justify,” Mr Parrotte said.
“We’re not sure how many people are going to use it.”
Linked’s single prototype in Erldunda is costing $500,000.
“They’re not cheap [but] to do that with the grid would cost 10 times as much,” Mr Sharam said.
At its current size, it could likely only fully charge a few cars a day without needing to revert to its diesel backup generator for extra power.
“We will need investment to scale,” Mr Sharam said.
An opportunity and a challenge
Besides the prototype being worked on with Linked, NRMA’s Ms Irving-Dolan said they have four other “recipes” of how to deliver charging outside big cities.
“In some of those areas, we’re adding a battery [and] augmenting what we call the network,” she said.
“It is crazy to think in a few months we’ll be building these big sites in the middle of nowhere, where nobody would have thought they could go.”
Ms Irving-Dolan said, at this stage, they believe the rollout cost would not go over the $90 million allocation they are sharing with the government, but it is a moving feast.
The NRMA has just started making Australians pay to use its branded chargers, as it rolls out more of them across the country.
In Dr Dwyer’s view, planning for electric cars in regional Australia needed to start “yesterday”.
He believes that EV adoption will ramp up in regional and remote Australia once electric versions of 4WDs and utes with longer battery life become available.
Currently, most of the electric cars available in Australia are smaller sedans, such as Mr Murray’s Tesla.
“Providing infrastructure is a complex mix of how the two forces [adoption and charging] play with each other,” Dr Dwyer said.
“If you go too fast, then [chargers] become under utilised. If you go too slow, then you end up with queues and people aren’t happy.
“We’re going to require many, many more electricians and electrical engineers, particularly where you’ve got remote regions.
“It’s an opportunity, but it’s also a challenge.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Northern Territory government reiterated the challenges, including worker shortages, grid gaps, and “extreme climatic conditions”.
“Government support [is] most needed where there may be a marginal commercial case for private investment in charging infrastructure,” they said.