Australia needs electric vehicles more than any other nation

Australia needs electric vehicles more than any other nation

Australia needs electric vehicles more than any other nation

Updated 6 October 2017, 21:20 AEDT

We're the world's great electric vehicle laggard, but thanks to our poor fuel security we need to catch up, writes Behyad Jafari.

Every major nation can benefit from a swift switch to electric vehicles, but Australia's very existence may rely on it.

If that sounds dramatic, consider the facts.

Australia is now heading towards 100 per cent import dependency on fuel, primarily from the Middle East and through Asia.

As an Iranian refugee, I know something about being imported to Australia from the Middle East and I can tell you: it's not smooth sailing.

We're now dependent on this route, traversed by foreign-owned vessels, primarily via the South China Sea.

Two weeks of fuel reserve

Last year, the former Deputy Chief of the RAAF, Air Vice Marshall John Blackburn, was commissioned by the NRMA to provide strategic advice on Australia's fuel security.

He found Australia's food, water, and medicine distribution was reliant on imported transport fuel and our supply operated on a "just in time" approach for logistical efficiency.

Long story short: at any given time, Australia has no more than two weeks' worth of imported fuel in the country.

After that, everything grinds to a complete and catastrophic halt.

Today, instability around North Korea and territorial conflicts in the South China Sea make the shipping routes more insecure than ever.

If any real conflict breaks out in the area, what priority would fuel imports to Australia take?

Would foreign-owned ships risk travelling through a conflict zone to satisfy contractual arrangements with Australian entities?

Would foreign suppliers even be willing to continue exporting?

The NRMA has estimated even a 20 to 40 per cent cut in Australia's fuel supply, "would quickly lead to a situation whereby the country would start running out of food and medicines, while the economy would start to shut down".

The world's great electric vehicle laggard

There's obviously plenty to be worried about with this scenario. Yet we should also be angry. Because the simple fact is there is no reason for our fuel security situation to be this precarious.

Australia could easily produce enough electricity to power millions of vehicles, providing greater demand for investment in renewable energy.

Yet somehow Australia, despite having the most to gain, is the world's great electric vehicle laggard.

A paltry 0.1 per cent of new vehicle sales in Australia last year were recorded as electric.

In other comparable nations, electric vehicles have become the norm: 29 per cent of new vehicles sold in Norway are now electric. Major vehicle markets such as China, France, and Britain have announced they will ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles. Countries and companies around the world have made clear the future of the market is electric.

Benefits besides fuel security

Even if you are somehow completely sanguine about the situation in the South China Sea, Australia's slowness to move is costing us on myriad other levels.

Electric vehicles are, for example, an efficient way for Australia to reduce carbon emissions.

An electric vehicle charged from the existing power grid already produces fewer emissions than the average petrol engine vehicle. This advantage will increase rapidly as the electricity sector moves toward renewables.

Electric vehicles would also clear air and noise pollution in our major cities. Major points of community anger, like smoke stacks in residential areas, could vanish.

Electric vehicles would also free Australian households from the tyranny of the bowser. With solar panels on your roof, most nights you could plug your car at home and fill up free. Music to the ears of those in our outer suburbs and regions, especially.

Send consumers a message

Here's the kicker: moving Australia towards electric vehicles would not require a massive commitment from government.

The benefits are so clear, we just have to dislodge the boulder from the top of the mountain.

The latest research shows most Australians would consider buying an electric vehicle, but are put off by the idea it is niche and unsupported by national infrastructure.

So, all that's needed is a clear, unambiguous message to consumers and industry that the government supports electric.

A step to build momentum

One easy, revenue-neutral step would be to provide a short-term exemption for electric vehicles from fringe benefits tax.

Half a million fleet vehicles are bought by the government and companies in Australia every year.

If we can help encourage a decent proportion of these sales to be electric it would kick start the transition.

The foregone revenue could easily be made up by only slightly increasing the impost on conventional vehicles.

In addition, governments might provide short-term exemptions to costs like stamp duty, registration and other taxes levied on the car market. Incentives could be provided for the mass installation of charging infrastructure.

The point is that once the momentum towards electric vehicles starts, it will be unstoppable.

A few small but important steps is all Australia needs to be a cleaner, healthier and more secure nation.

Behyad Jafari is chief executive of the Electric Vehicle Council.