Plenty of power for electric cars in NZ

09 May 2018

In this Part III examining whether electric vehicles (EVs) are a fad or really are the future, we consider the implications for the supply of electricity and more.

What happens when New Zealand stops importing oil and substitutes it with hydro, geothermal, solar and wind energy to make our cars and trucks work?

To start with, New Zealand would move from a current account deficit to a budget surplus. That’s good news all round. Save money on oil, save the planet, sleep easy at night.

There are 3.9 million registered cars and trucks in New Zealand. They consume $11.8 billion worth of fuel each year and employ tens of thousands of workers selling, servicing and repairing these vehicles.

Electric vehicles on the other hand number just over 24,000. They require much less service and support and the margins for new car sales are so low that most dealers won’t want to be involved with them.

So, the move to EVs will place a whole lot of jobs at risk while at the same time requiring a whole new set of skills that may or may not be available in the market.

Oil companies, in the meantime, won’t be just sitting around the campfire singing love songs while awaiting the new dawn. Don’t expect too many electric car chargers at your local petrol station. Do expect the price of petrol to fall though.

Electricity supply

Just how our electricity network will cope, is a key question. Concerned at the vision of transformers exploding, fuses blowing and power cuts making candlelit dinners a less-than romantic interlude, I went to the oracle: Andrew Toop, GM Commercial at Counties Power. I hoped he might ease my fears.

He said it’s not as bad as people might think.

Andrew said, “Our country’s generation capability is already very substantial and the recent investments by Transpower in new transmission infrastructure gives us a great platform to work off.

“Also, efficiency gains from better housing, lighting and insulation choices mean national demand
for electricity isn’t growing all that quickly in many regions outside Auckland.

“So EVs could make a lot of sense, subject to us paying attention to the basics, like smart local networks, suitable transformers and ensuring the wiring we put in place in our new and existing buildings is up to spec.”

Let’s pay attention to some of that underpinning technology.

Taking care of the basics

New Zealand is a world leader in “ripple switching”, the system lines companies (energy distributors) use to switch hot water heaters on and off when electricity demand peaks around dinner time. This same approach could well be used to balance the load generated by cars being charged when people get home from work.

There is also a mechanism called “Time of Use Billing”. Commonly used in commercial settings, we are also likely to see smart retailers automating the management of householders’ electricity usage to ensure that peak loads are managed and that users are getting the cheapest price all the time.

Let’s not forget the EV itself. Onboard artificial intelligence already supports safe driverless cars (well, almost). The same smarts could be used to ensure the car charges itself when the price is low, and the power is most available.

Speaking of peak demand. You may be surprised to know that our current electricity system only hits peak load a few times each year, in fact, only 0.6 percent of the time. For the remaining 99.4 percent of the time, the system is working well within its capacity. Adding to that, I believe that the Government is subsidising the Australian owners of Tiwai Point to consume nearly 15 percent of our total electricity production, so it appears there is a fair bit of potential headroom to support the emergence of electric cars. New Zealand is, after all, the Saudi Arabia of the wind and hydro world. Why not take advantage of all that cheap, renewable power?


Read more electric car analysis in the New Zealand/Australia context, or take a look at these electric car reviews.