My Electric Journey Around Northland

Over the weekend, Labour’s Stuart Nash called for the Crown’s ministerial limo fleet to be replaced with electric vehicles (EVs). I’m delighted by this, because the Greens have been saying this for some time and it’s great that the idea is catching on more broadly.

Electric vehicles are now a real, serious option that threatens to upend the economics of the fossil fuel industry and revolutionise household finances. A few weeks back I had the chance to experience this first-hand.

My journey to becoming co-leader for the Greens involved travelling the length and breadth of the country to meet and gain our members’ support.

This, of course, creates an internal struggle – having to burn carbon like there’s no tomorrow while promoting my vision for the Greens as a champion of climate change and a future without fossil fuels.

So the chance provided by the Greens’ Northland team to travel the province using a far more sustainable transport fuel – New Zealand made electricity – relieved me somewhat of that dilemma.

Both co-convenors of the Green Northland branch own electric vehicles; they walk the talk. We travelled silently, safely, and with zero tailpipe emissions from Whangarei to Kerikeri, Kaitaia to Kaiwaka. The cars ran on nothing but 100 percent New Zealand made electricity.

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Vernon Tava, Kevin Hague, and James Shaw with a Tesla Model S in Northland

Wow. The Tesla Model S and Nissan LEAF are pretty amazing cars. The Tesla is like driving an iPhone. It goes from zero to one hundred in well under five seconds and has a 400km range. I was impressed and it seems electric vehicles are putting the gas guzzlers to shame.

The Tesla does come with a (very) hefty price tag, but a second hand LEAF just a few years old is now below the $20k mark.

All cars started their life beyond the financial reach of most people, and then the price dropped. New Zealand imports around two hundred thousand cars a year. We have highly renewable electricity. It’s pretty clear that we should be moving swiftly to electric vehicles.

EVs have a higher production carbon footprint at this stage but over their lifetime there are significant environmental savings to be had – provided the electricity is renewable.

What’s becoming clear is the EV revolution two-fold. Sure, the cars are one side of the story, but it’s the easy availability of the fuel where the real change will happen.

Although the infrastructure for electricity is everywhere, and charging at home is easy, public charging facilities are nearly nowhere. We had to phone mates of mates with welding shops and businesses looking for three-phase outlets in Kerikeri and Kaitaia so we could get around in the Tesla in the timeframe we had. LEAFs were run in relay, swapping from one fully charged car to the next.

Of course that’s not practical for most people, but it’s only really a problem if you’re doing long trips like we were. Suburban drivers dropping the kids at school or heading off to the supermarket wouldn’t have any difficulty getting there and back several times over on just one charge.

Whangarei-based electricity lines company, Northpower, is a champion of EVs, and for obvious reasons: they’ll sell more electricity.

To kick-start things, they built the first DC rapid charging station a year ago. It doesn’t make money … yet. Their fast charger can fill a LEAF to 80% capacity in twenty minutes, but other companies have been slow off the mark.

As an example of what can happen when you get a rapid charger, Whangarei has gone from one EV eighteen months ago to now well over 30, with more being bought every week.

EVs are popping up across the region to take advantage of Northpower’s charging facilities. The opportunities for businesses like supermarkets, cafes and movie theatres to become charge spots should be lighting up like Christmas.

Joseph Camuso, a Whangarei local EV advocate and owner of New Zealand’s first Electric Taxi, has calculated Northland’s EVs have so far travelled half a million kilometres, saved $80,000 on fossil fuels, spent around $20,000 on local electricity, put $60,000 in the back pockets of local owners, and saved at least eighty tonnes of carbon.

James Shaw and Vernon Tava with Whangarei's EV taxi
James Shaw and Vernon Tava with Whangarei’s EV taxi

Northpower have begun to break the dreaded chicken-and-egg conundrum, but it has been a slow road to Damascus for the rest, mainly because there’s no money in it yet.

There is some hope. Vector, Mighty River Power, Contact Energy, the Electricity Networks Association, and Drive Electric are coming round to the idea of EVs. Private company, owned by a devoted group of ‘EV-angalists’, is planning to set up around seventy rapid charge stations across New Zealand, but as co-owner Steve West said, “It makes a pretty terrible business case”.

Mr West’s motivation is not necessarily a free-market ideological profit driven one as alluded to by MP Simon Bridges, but a firm belief this is the right way to go, environmentally and for our economy.

Mr West’s commitment to setting up fast charging infrastructure is more likely driven by frustration at a lack of government vision and involvement. In short, we are just lucky for Mr West’s charity.

Last election the Greens put forward a $10 million package to kick-start the EV revolution by supporting the development of nationwide rapid charging infrastructure, much like Northpower has done. $10 million is just 0.3 percent of the $3.7 billion annual Ministry of Transport budget. New Zealand spends around $6-8 billion dollars on imported fossil oil that supplies almost all of our transport energy. That oil is cloaked in controversy, corruption, violence and war. It is seriously bad for the climate. Why wouldn’t we strive for more energy independence from a moral standpoint alone, not to mention an environmental one – and one that meant cheaper fuel for Kiwis?

And given 90 percent of our trips are under 40 kms, why are we still igniting a fire under the hood to go to the supermarket?

While the National government sits in the back seat, countries like Norway, with a similar population to New Zealand but with a range of government driven EV incentives, celebrate their 50,000th EV on the road. We have just passed a measly 500 in New Zealand.

The late adoption of EVs, coming from a country that thinks of itself as leading edge is concerning. Especially given people like Sir Stephen Tindall see home-grown fuel as New Zealand’s biggest green growth opportunity.

In Norway, incentives for EVs range from tax exemptions to free parking and charging, and access to priority lanes – all approved by the European Free Trade Association’s Surveillance Authority.

The journey around Northland showed me the potential of EVs. They aren’t perfect, but they are better than petrol driven cars.

Surely with all these positives, a responsible government would be right behind the move to electrifying our transport as much as possible, but instead they’re taking a back seat in a smoky old petrol-driven car that’s stalled at a green light.

8 Comments Posted

  1. THE BATTERY ISSUE is enormous and yet to be recognised by most Greens
    Sadly, this probably won’t happen until the first high volume replacements are needed in about two years, when owners realise the replacement and recycle cost is more them the vehicle is worth, and we see the first million Priuses hitting the tips..

  2. As someone who has lived in rural parts for most of my life, where the resources of food and shelter construction are more substantial in a world without cheap transport, I find the posts on here have a very urban outlook and expectation. In the 1960’s on the Coromandel we didn’t expect do drive everywhere and the local bakers, butchers, grocers, hardwares had weekly deliveries – very cost efficient for fuel. We need to do some serious analysis of what sort of urbanisation is truly sustainable. The need for delivery vehicles or even horses left the rest of the community free do the primary production that a far bigger percentage of society did. Is the urban proliferation of services and commerce where society is becoming unsustainable, and if so all the playing with transport systems is a waste of time. The ratio of people to resources at a lower end is where the ecosystem copes? Land use planning developed the thinking in the 70’s that people needed to be concentrated to leave productive land available for the industrial farming to feed the expanding masses. While this premise has some truth there is a limit to scale and this is what we need to come to terms with.

  3. John W is, of course, fundamentally correct, we live in a finite world, and thus solutions that believe resources are infinite are, by definition, doomed to failure, eventually. But before eventually happens, we will continue to trash the planet with gay abandon.

    In the interim, are electric vehicles the solution? I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” I see the same thinking from the Green Party.

    There are two megatrends that will probably overtake the need to have a widespread electric vehicle fleet, and the need to build a nationwide network of charging stations.

    The first of these is Uber. Everyone thinks of Uber as a cheapskate taxi provider, but althoiugh that might be the current reality, it is not Uber’s goal. Their mission: “Transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere, for everyone”. They want to change the mindset of the people of the world, so car ownership is not the essential that it is today. So that the total cost (TCO) of a family’s transport need is reduced, and they are not incovenienced. So this will lead to fewer cars, but the cars that are there will work harder and longer.

    Electric vehicles work well as most people take short-ish trips, and then leave their car in a parking spot for hours, where an electric car can be rechrged. Uber vehicles will be on the road solidly. Thus the electric vehicle technology of today will not be a good match to Uber.

    The second megatrend is driverless vehicles. Google have about the same goal as Uber, in that they don’t see car ownership as necessarily advantageous, but that a google driverless can can be summoned by smartphone, and deliver its occupants to wherever.

    Uber today are setting the expectations that Google believe they will be able to deliver on but better. This is going to be the battleground, probably kicking off in less than a decade. This will change the future of personal and public transport. Henry Ford chnaged the world from horses to cars, owned and driven by people. Uber, Google and their immitators and competitors will get rid of personal car ownership and self driving.

  4. Although I share some of the pessimism of John, I feel his point is missing the wider Green policies that must be seen as well. With a much deeper commitment to electric rail and buses as well we can reduce the need for individual transport, and in an ideal world some would still be required. I think more attention has to be paid to recycling , get air transport replaced by shipping, and more than anything a wide discussion at local levels to push land usage back to family use models, and definitely away from corporate centralisation. Unfortunately the society is only coming to grips with what Climate change means in quantity terms, so imagination and discussion is essential and those thinking more realistically have to be patient. With the Dunedin and now Whanganui in close timing sure gives the wider message about the real costs of not starting to reduce reliance on our present consumer urbanisation. Local body elections are a great platform for all the concerned groups to create the dialogue.

  5. On the surface electric vehicles have an appeal to those who don’t understand that they present a new problem that doesn’t fix the old one. A finite Earth and over shot population. Also a small western style civilisation that excessively consumes, wastes and pollutes.

    Non renewable resources globally have been consumed at an exponentially increasing rate for the last two hundred years- since cheap energy ( short term ) has become available. We have used up nearly two thirds of what non renewable resources were present in available deposits at 1800 and the rate of consumption has not yet peaked but is not far from that peak.

    Energy use tracks non renewable resource consumption consistently. You cannot harvest non renewable resources independently of using energy to do so, and vice versa, Unless the scale of energy use is reduced to employing a few beasts of burden and / or human toil, we face a dramatic change.
    It is dreamland to promote personal transport as an answer to mitigate global collapse of present civilisation at present population levels.

    Design of communities to produce food sustainably, provide shelter and education that can be managed with little mechanised transport, is not too difficult as we have done it before.

    Either intelligence is use to take little of what is left an apply effective change with better design of communities or we may as well face the issues squarely.

    Electric cars use energy and consume non renewable resources. There is not much left from our natural store that can be harvested easily, The rate of destruction increases as we mine, plunder, disrupt, deforest, poison, wipe out, dump waste, leave land barren, destroy traditional land husbandry, displace rural communities, pollute the air and sea, ignore science, and watch the consequences of our tragic actions mount.
    The dream of personal travel is well known to be high risk and damaging to our future….yet we persist leaving the responsibility to others to sort out. Well that can’t be done for much longer.

    Lies are not always untruths. Lies are also information that presents a false picture. There are many lies about electric cars.

    The carbon footprint and real cost is horrific. The recycled battery material cannot be used for new batteries and even that recycling is very costly in term of energy and new non renewable resources. Continually new resource are need for battery production but hey, we are facing a shortfall of non renewable resources and yet our rate of using them is still increasing.

    New technology will not provide and answer. That hope is cornucopia clap trap based on reductionist arguments.

    There are answers better known but ignored as they do not involve wealth harvesting.

    The idea of non polluting electric cars is a myth.
    If all our fleet in NZ used electrical energy then we would have a serious shortfall for other purposes.

    You just can’t have your cake and eat it.

    We have got ourselves into a mess but electric cars will only take us into deeper water. Will we swim to shore or drown.

  6. Great article – can’t fault any of the comment there which makes sense given you have been consulting with the correct people and listening. i.e. us EV-angelists. I am really pleased to read this as I know that not all Greens see EVs in the same light. I have owned a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV for over a year now – great vehicle – I have travelled 30,000km – of that 25,000 km on battery (83%) commuting Upper Hutt to Wellington. Reduced petrol by 2,000 litres and saved ~ 5 tonnes CO2-e.

    So yes – too many benefits that NZ is missing by a slow uptake. SImple policy examples from other nations should be copied ….. I was just looking at British Columbia . As a Plug-in Hybrid driver I think day time charging is needed – any policy that got car park owners to install power sockets would be tremendous (even 10A standard but 15A better). I think one point being missed in this “we don’t need any infrastructure” drivel from the Minister and EECA is that the after the early adopters the purchasers of EVs and PHEVs are going to be high kilometer drivers .- I am probably a typical example, saved $3,500 in avoided petrol in a year with 30% of this thanks to Wellington’s solitary public charging point which has allowed me to drive home on EV rather than hit petrol from Petone.

    One point is that aim should be extended from the limos to all Government/SOE fleets … I know of one glaring bad example where an SOE bought many new Diesel SUVs this year when they could have bought Outlander PHEVs ….. no doubt standard accounting said it was the correct decision. (i.e. discounted price, high discount rate, tax, uncosted externalities, low CO2 price) If that decision is made by all vehicle purchasers on the planet we know the answer isn’t pretty.


  7. In addition to the $60,000 savings calculated by Joseph Camuso an EV only has a small fraction of the moving components of an internal combustion engine powered vehicle so the maintenance costs are also very much reduced for an EV.

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