Electric the way to travel...

Tuesday July 04, 2017 Written by Published in Environment
Zero emissions…the compact engine in the Nissan Leaf. 17061318 Zero emissions…the compact engine in the Nissan Leaf. 17061318

This feature by Professor John Hay looks at the introduction of fully battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs) in the Cook Islands and discusses their advantages in an island environment.


By a recent count there are around 20 fully battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs) on Rarotonga, with at least another one in the Pa Enua.

This is roughly twice the rate of uptake of BEVs worldwide. Global BEV sales in 2015 are estimated to have been 462,000, representing around 1 per cent of light duty vehicle sales globally. Applying this rate to the around 1,100 light vehicles newly registered in the Cook Islands between 2014 and 2016, would equate to there being around 11 BEVs in the Cook Islands.

We are well ahead of global trends, because our islands are ideal for electric vehicles. Last year government announced that it is looking to embrace proven low carbon transport technologies and that it is exploring the most effective incentives for promotion of a transition towards clean energy transportation.

Hopefully such laudable policy goals will soon bear fruit. Meanwhile, it is likely that the growth in EV numbers will likely remain at twice the global rate. This would mean that in 10 years’ time, around 80 BEVs would be imported each year.

Why should we continue to do much better than the global average, even without the government being proactive? Our relatively small islands mean that BEV owners in the Cook Islands can avoid “range anxiety” – a pervasive but essentially irrational fear that the BEV won’t have enough stored power to meet the day’s driving needs before being recharged.

This fear is typically used to explain why BEVs haven’t caught on — according to this thinking, drivers won’t move to battery-powered vehicles in large numbers until they have a significantly greater range than is currently possible.

But in Rarotonga, for example, the BEV driver is never more than 16 km from the recharging point at home. Moreover, who in Rarotonga drives around the island more than five times in one day? That’s the distance a typical BEV can travel before needing to be recharged.

Of course, potential EV owners in the Cook Islands who nevertheless suffer range anxiety can opt for a hybrid EV, or even a plug-in hybrid EV.

Hybrid EVs can be classified according to the way in which power is supplied to the drivetrain. A “full hybrid”, such as the Toyota Prius, can run on just the engine, just the batteries, or a combination of both.

Given the relatively short distances usually driven in a day there is no need to have a network of EV charging stations around Rarotonga, or any of our Pa Enua.

Recently TAU opened a charging station in the car park at its the main office in Tutakimoa, arguing that there will be times when owners will need to top up their battery when out and about.

This is a wasted use of TAU’s resources, despite their argument that it will help them to better understand the BEV market on Rarotonga and the charging needs of owners. The few who will use the charging station, motivated by a free charge, albeit only initially, are hardly representative of the majority of BEV users.

The charging station is also a bad move for EV owners. While the TAU system will recharge an EV in 20 to 30 minutes, such fast charging is highly detrimental to the longevity of the EV battery. This is a major incentive to do the charging at home, where a battery-friendly recharge takes up to four hours.

Electric cars use older technology than petrol cars. The first electric car was built in 1834 and by 1900 around 40 per cent of all cars were electric. But oil was cheap and abundant and, in many ways, offered a better method of powering fast cars over long distances. However, since 2008 there has been a renaissance in electric vehicle production due to advances in batteries and energy management, concerns about increasing oil prices, and the need to slow climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The number of EVs globally reached 1 million during 2015 and passed the 2 million mark in 2016.

Continuing reductions in battery prices will bring the total cost of ownership of EVs below that for conventional fuel vehicles by 2025, even with low oil prices. Sales of electric vehicles will reach 41 million by 2040, representing 35 per cent of new light duty vehicle sales. This would be almost 90 times the present percentage.

Electric cars are considerably more efficient than petrol cars because electric motors are inherently more efficient (about 80 per cent) than internal combustion engines. The latter are a mere 30 per cent for the engine alone, and much less for an entire petrol-powered vehicle. A high proportion of the fuel they burn becomes waste heat.

Hybrid cars achieve their higher efficiency and fuel economy largely by switching from gasoline power to electricity whenever it’s favourable, such as crawling along in heavy traffic. Efficiency is further increased through regenerative braking - the electric motor becomes a generator when the brakes are applied. This recharges the battery. BEVs, which also use regenerative braking, are about twice as efficient as hybrid EVs. This is due to a combination of the efficiency of the electric motor and reduced weight due to no internal combustion engine.

There are other reasons for switching from a “gas guzzler” to a BEV. The latter cost about a third less to maintain than an equivalent fossil-fuelled car. They reduce traffic noise, and tend to occupy less road space, an important consideration in small islands. If charged using renewable energy BEVs increase national energy self-sufficiency, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The car batteries can be used for storage of electricity. This would mean that TAU could allow more solar energy systems to be installed. However, current regulations don’t permit such additional uses of the BEV battery.

Importantly, the oft-made claim that a BEV is “emissions free” is more marketing hype than reality. Firstly, unless the electricity used to charge the battery comes from a solar panel or wind turbine, emissions will result from the process of electricity generation. Secondly, almost half the lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions from a BEV come from the energy used to produce the car, especially the battery. This compares to around 17 per cent for a petrol-powered car. Consequently, a BEV has to clock up around 130,000 km before its lifetime emissions of carbon-dioxide are less than a similar-sized petrol-powered car. That’s a lot of times around the island!

However, the BEVs in the Cook Islands were imported as second-hand vehicles. They are being given a second life. This means emissions related to their manufacture are not included in our national inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. Just as well, since emissions from road transport are increasing, reflecting the growing number of newly registered vehicles – an increase of over 250 per cent in the last five years.

There is no duty on EVs imported into the Cook Islands. While this is a positive move by the Government, it could do much more. Even with the saving on duty, the initial investment in a BEV, and the solar energy system to power it, is high, and well beyond the means of many people. But given the high costs of petrol and electricity, the investment can soon be paid off – around two years for the solar energy system.

A BEV costs between $19,000 and $25,000. A 2.5 Kilowatt solar energy system (10 panels) costs around $9,500. When combined with a one panel solar hot water heating system (less that $2,000), this provides sufficient energy on average to power a two-person home and charge the car – see chart.

Avoiding both electricity and petrol costs allows the investment to paid off in just a few years, while also demonstrating environmental stewardship.

What of the future for EVs in the Cook Islands?

The many advantages EVs have when used in a small island context will see numbers continue to increase at a rate well above the global average. This is despite the negative perceptions of EVs, including range anxiety. The current moratorium on new solar energy systems is a major barrier. It will be removed once TAU has the ability to store electricity during times of surplus (eg a sunny day) for use when there’s a deficit (eg at night). With a change in the regulations, BEVs can be part of this solution. Uncertainty regarding TAU’s future policies on net metering is also a barrier.

The government could also increase import duties on “gas guzzlers.” They are just as unhealthy for the economy and the environment as tobacco and sugar are for our health, and perhaps even make EVs VAT-exempt. An even greater boost for government’s clean energy transportation policy would be if it worked with the financial sector to make low or zero interest loans available for the purchase of BEVs as well as the solar energy systems to charge them. Purchasers would be more than able to pay back the principal, and any interest, over a few years.

After all, that bill would be far less than the electricity and petrol bills they no longer need to pay!

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