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Environmental Impact of the Electric Cars

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In the lead up to this year’s election, Labour stated they wanted 50% of all new car sales to be electric by 2030. Did this policy resonate with the Australian public? From an idealistic point of view, yes, Australians, in a fight against climate change, do want a cleaner, greener environment and yes, electric cars will form part of this in the future. However, we can interpret the election result as meaning that people are very concerned with both the cost of owning and running an electric car at this current point in time and are yet to be convinced that electric cars are beneficial enough to outweigh their disadvantages.

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Many of us in this room will turn 18 this year and some of us will be fortunate enough to get our first car. The biggest factor we will need to consider will no doubt be the cost. To give you an idea of cost. A brand new, entry level, Hyundai i30 will cost you around $20k and a Mazda 2 will cost you around $15k. Compare this to the cheapest electric car in Australia at $47k, a Renualt Zoe, which is the same size as the Mazda 2 a or the slightly larger Nissan Leaf at $55k. Tesla, the largest electric vehicle manufacturer in the world, has a base model which is priced in the region of $70k

Earlier this year, Labor’s assistant shadow minister for climate change and energy, Pat Conroy, told ABC there were currently only four electric vehicles in Australia priced under $50k.

The main reason for these cars being so expensive is that the technology is very new and the cost to produce the battery is much higher than producing a regular combustion engine. In the future, according to Bloomberg, a leading financial data company, should the cost of lithium ion batteries continue to fall, electric cars will become cheaper and demand will increase. And once they have become less expensive, demand will occur naturally and not have to be forced through compulsory measures.

Not only is the electric vehicle unaffordable for the general public to purchase, it is just as unaffordable to run if you are running them with clean power like solar, wind or hydroelectricity. At the moment, renewable energy is still more expensive than existing old coal-fired power stations. According to the Australian National University, “existing coal power stations can generate energy at less than $40 per MWh .” Compare this to wind turbine costs, which is one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy at $60 to $70 per MWh.

Of course, the main argument for electric vehicles is that they are more kind to our environment than their diesel or petrol counterparts. If we compare one electric vehicles to one petrol car in isolation, then yes, the electric vehicle has zero carbon emissions, and obviously the petrol car does. However, things are very interdependent in our world. The electric vehicle may not be emitting noxious carbon fumes, but the coal-fired energy plants that we would be using to charge our electric vehicles certainly do. Until such time as we have a cost-efficient, reliable and expansive network of clean energy sources (such as solar / wind), all we are doing by using an electric vehicle is shifting the problem from one source (the petrol car) onto another source (that is, the power stations that charge the cars). The conclusion of a study by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research claimed that “Under present conditions, the overall carbon footprint of a battery-powered car is similar to that of a conventional car with a combustion engine’.

Another environmental impact of the electric cars is that the lithium-ion battery it uses contains materials which is currently not recycled. According to the CSIRO, “only 2% of Australia’s annual 3,300 tonnes of lithium-ion battery waste is recycled, and with waste levels projected to grow to more than 100,000 tonnes by 2036… creating a number of serious environmental problems”. In juxtaposition, 98% of lead acid batteries found in combustion engines are recycled. Australia does not yet have any established schemes in place for recycling lithium-ion as they do for lead acid batteries, resulting in huge amounts currently going to landfill.

Until the lithium-ion batteries can be charged using sustainable methods and can be recycled and reused, electric vehicles should not become compulsory.Aside from the cost and the questionable advantage to climate change, on a practical note, we cannot make electric vehicles mandatory when there is not nearly enough charging infrastructure around Australia to support them. An article in the Government News published earlier this year, reports that there are only 800 charging stations across Australia compared to the thousands of petrol stations nationwide in both cities and remote areas. I know that we can all picture the nearest petrol station closest to our houses but would be hard pressed to think of an electric charging station.

Many more charging stations in many more locations throughout our vast land need to be constructed to support these vehicles. Electric vehicles have a limited mileage on one charge and one cannot carry spare batteries like one can carry spare petrol.

  

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