More than 60 public electric vehicle charging stations are being built this year around regional New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland in a bid to make electric cars a more practical option in regional Australia.
- New regional public EV charging stations are being rolled out on the east coast
- The charging stations make regional travel more practical in an electric car, but there are still some challenges
- Purchase price is still the biggest roadblock to electric car sales
But will this be enough to make electric vehicles (EVs) work in the bush?
To find out, I hit the highway for a 1,200-kilometre regional road trip in an electric car.
Before I left, my biggest anxiety was, of course, range. I’d rented an electric SUV with a range of about 450 kilometres, which was almost enough to get from Sydney to my first destination of Wagga Wagga.
I planned to charge the car at a new public charging station in Jugiong, 337 kilometres away.
Leaving Sydney, the car told me I had a range of 410 kilometres, leaving me a margin of 70 kilometres. Tight, but doable.
But outside Sydney, I drove into the teeth of headwinds strong enough to shake the car.
Running on empty
Very quickly, the car started recalculating the range. It was now telling me I wouldn’t make it to Jugiong. The headwinds were drastically affecting the range of the car.
Plan B was recharging at a recently installed station in Yass, 60 kilometres closer.
I was pretty sure I’d make it, but if the charging station was out of order, the car would go flat.
I didn’t have a plan C.
The last 40 kilometres before Yass was a white-knuckle experience.
Anyone who’s rolled into a service station on fumes will understand the newly installed charging station in Yass was a beautiful sight. I arrived with 39 kilometres of battery left.
The Yass charging station is the latest in a network of 35 regional charging stations installed by the NSW Motorists Association, NRMA, in partnership with the NSW Government.
‘Australians won’t have a choice’
NRMA spokesperson Peter Khoury told me the rest of the world was turning its back on petrol and diesel-powered cars and Australia needed to follow suit.
“There are environmental benefits but this is not just an environmental issue. It’s a transport issue. It’s a national security issue. We don’t want to be left behind,” Mr Khoury said.
The NRMA plans to install enough charging stations to drive as far as western New South Wales just using their network of chargers.
Similar rollouts of charging stations are taking place in Victoria and Queensland, where the State Government plans enough chargers to drive from Brisbane to Cairns.
The charging bowsers themselves are made by an Australian company, Tritium, which is actually one of the world’s largest makers of EV charging stations. They only sell a fraction of their chargers in Australia, where the uptake of electric cars lags way behind Europe and Asia.
Charging the car was simple. The bowser has a thick cable and a plug that’s similar to a petrol bowser. Once I plugged the car into the bowser, I hit the start button and the car began to charge.
What I didn’t know was how long it would take to charge the car, which was almost dead flat.
While I waited, it was time for lunch. I wandered along the main street of Yass until I found a cafe. There, I scanned my phone on their COVID-19 registry and ordered a wrap and a cappuccino.
There’s a natural relationship between regional touring in an electric car and lunch. Instead of fast food at a highway service station, the longer charge times of electric cars lend themselves to a more relaxed schedule to poke around a small town. It is less “pit stop” and more “electric back roads”.
An hour later, I wandered back to the charging station to find the battery 90 per cent charged, with the car’s range back over 400 kilometres. There are ultra-fast chargers that can do this in fewer than 10 minutes. But for this particular car and the NRMA network, charging time was about an hour.
The NRMA says the charging stations will remain free to the public for a year or two and will continue to be free for NRMA members.
In Yass, I was met by Rosie King from the ABC’s Wagga Wagga bureau. Rosie had lined up some local motorists who could shine some light on how well electric cars worked in the bush.
But before then, we had to get to Wagga Wagga, and the day was getting away from us.
Our electric car was quieter, smoother and felt more powerful than a conventional car. The most striking difference was how much faster it accelerated. The car made a faint whirring sound that turned out to be a fake engine noise coming from under the bonnet. The car was so quiet, engineers had given it an artificial sound so pedestrians could hear it coming.
Rosie and I arrived in Wagga Wagga after dark, tired and hungry. The car needed to be charged again, and the hotel I was staying in didn’t have an EV charge point.
I could have plugged the car into a conventional power point using a special adaptor, but I had learned even an overnight charge from a regular power point would not put enough electricity in the car to fully charge it.
In fact, a single one-hour charge in a fast charger used more power than my three-bedroom home used in three days.
Luckily, Wagga Wagga had just christened another new NRMA charging station. It stood, forlorn and lonely in a carpark, 10 minutes’ walk from Wagga’s main street.
Walking back from the charging station to the main street in search of a meal, it started to rain. I was glad I didn’t have kids with me.
After finding dinner, I walked back in drizzle to the car and found it fully charged again and ready for another day.
Early the next morning, Rosie and I met local electric car owner and software developer Dev Mukherjee.
Dev was about to drive his luxury electric car to Sydney. He’d been driving electric in Wagga since 2015, one of Tesla’s first customers in Australia. Dev has not been put off by the lack of charging options.
“As early adopters, we knew that was going to be a limitation,” he said.
“But now you can almost travel from North Queensland to Adelaide using public charging. Now, as other companies like NRMA and so forth have picked up the idea, this is now becoming commonplace.”
Dev has travelled all over Australia, powered by electricity alone, and says he will never own a petrol-powered car again.
‘Dead and buried’
Next, Rosie and I swung past her mechanic, Paul Seaman. Paul is a diehard revhead with a collection of Holden muscle cars. He said he had never driven an electric car, so we were keen to see what he thought.
Pulling out onto a country road outside Wagga, Paul worried about the same situation we faced rolling into Yass.
“It probably does 400 kilometres, but not with a headwind in pouring rain,” he said.
“The anxiety with breaking down in one of these is having to get a tow. You can’t just put in four litres of fuel and drive to the servo.”
Rosie asked Paul if he could see an EV in his car collection in the future.
“No, not in my future,” he said.
“I’ll be dead and buried by the time they become mainstream.”
“What would it take to convince you?” Rosie asked.
“Until they can get prices down to the same as a Mazda 2, it’s never going to happen.”
But Paul was impressed by the car’s acceleration, and by the end of the drive had backed off a little in his opposition.
The CEO of Australia’s Electric Vehicle Council, Behyad Jafari, said the current prices of electric vehicles were an even bigger problem than the infrastructure.
“The price is far and away the most important factor. The reality is that they cost more up-front,” he said.
Mr Jafari said the emerging EV industry needed federal incentives or tax exemptions.
“For a few years now, states have been pushing the Federal Government to get on with it and they’re doing everything that’s in their power but the Federal Government is just sitting back,” he said.
Mr Jafari said EVs had fallen victim to the climate wars, and sadly that meant Australia was missing out on what could be a lucrative and innovative industry.
“The entire world’s moving on this journey towards electric vehicles and that means, much like the internet and smartphones did, there are going to be opportunities for entrepreneurial and innovative Australians to tap into that,” he said.
“But if we’re 10 years behind the rest of the world, those opportunities are going to be limited.”
Electric back roads
Rosie and I headed north, back to Jugiong. Last time I drove through the Riverina, the hills were brown and bald after years of drought. Now, the region was lush with deep green grass and bright yellow fields of canola.
This was everything that was lovely about country driving. Quiet back roads. Long green grass. The bush coming back to life after years of drought.
In Jugiong, we met Liz Prater, who runs the local pub. She said the new charging station had brought customers in off the highway.
“I do often see people parked here charging, and they stop and get a coffee and do their half an hour or they stop and come in for lunch for an hour. And off they go again,” she said.
Before the charging station, Liz had seen the lengths people went to to charge their cars.
“One customer had a flash Tesla and he’d backed in up to the barn, unplugged the hot water system and was charging his car overnight,” she said.
Public fast charging difficult in Canberra
My next stop was Canberra, which had recently declared its electricity system 100 per cent renewable. In theory, recharging in Canberra would be 100 per cent cost and emission-free.
In practice, charging in Canberra was not so straightforward.
I used an app, Plugshare, to find a charging station. There was a fast charger in the centre of town, but I needed a swipe pass to use it, and over the phone, the ACT electricity company ACTEWAGL said it would take at least a week to order the pass. There was a slower charger available, but it closed at 10:00pm, which didn’t give me enough time to charge the car.
There were fast chargers at Canberra airport, but they could only be used with Tesla cars. The chargers didn’t work with non-Tesla cars.
The next day, I rang ACTEWAGL back. They explained their fast charger was installed eight years ago, one of the first in the country, and they were now working to upgrade the charger so that a swipe pass was no longer necessary. They helped me charge the car. Returning to a fully charged car an hour later, I noticed a HALF HOUR ONLY parking sign above the charger.
The 300km trip back to Sydney was fast and trouble-free. Without headwinds, I arrived home with 100 kilometres of range still in the battery.
Our regional road trip felt like a glimpse into the future. Fuel costs for our 1,200-kilometre trip were zero. That was extraordinary. And the car felt futuristic.
Touring in an electric car is now possible without special preparation, but only just, and only thanks to the new network of regional charging stations.
Electric motorists no longer need to run extension cords out the window of their hotel rooms. But until multiple charging stations can be found in most towns, EV owners will need to leave town armed with plans A, B and C — in case there isn’t power where they need it.