Tom Doig

Running on Empty

It’s 10am on a Sunday morning. Fat raindrops fall out of a low sky as I park in a paddock full of utes and SUVs. Judging by the lawnmower whine in the air, there is already plenty of racing going on. But I didn’t drag myself out of bed and head to Werribee,in Melbourne’s SouthEast, forthe thrill of motor sport. I am here to observe ‘a convergence of electric vehicles’, just in case they can save the world from catastrophic climate change.

There are only two electric vehicles (EVs) doing time trials today, as part of the wordily named Society of Automotive Engineers Australasia’s Formula SAE-A 2011 competition – Formula SAE-A 2011 for short. So in a field that mainly features more traditional motorised transport, the smaller gathering of electric vehicle enthusiasts – rallied together by national not-for-profit the Alternative Technology Association (ATA) – are mostly here to hang out, talk torque, and check out each other’s batteries.

As I go in search of the EV enthusiasts – amid the marquees and pit crews and fire-retardant headgear – it appears that the non-racing electric vehicles at Formula SAE-A 2011 are literally marginalised. They are parked in a paddock on the edge of proceedings, behind a takeaway trailer selling potato cakes and ‘coffee’. Considering the pariah status that electric cars have had in Australia’s automobile market until very recently, this seems glumly apt. The whole scene might be a bit depressing – except that one of the vehicles resembles a billion-dollar Stealth bomber.

As I stare with a kind of pre-adolescent wonder at what turns out to be a solar car called the Aurora Evolution, a young man with an unruly mop of brown hair and one slightly lazy eye ambles up and introduces himself.

Martin Brook is precocious and eccentric, with the tone of amiable disdain that comes of being a geek on home turf. The business card Brook hands me describes him as the ‘Educational Outreach Lead’ for the Aurora Solar Car team. He explains that he developed a passion for model solar cars in high school,and was working at a solar car event four years ago when the Aurora team ‘recruited’ him. “That’s how it usually works with Aurora – if you’re not careful I’ll try to recruit you to join my media team,” Brook tells me, only half-joking.

Brook informs me that the Aurora Evolution, which has ‘ZOOM-ZOOM’ painted on its side, has a top speed of 155km/hr and can run for 500km when fully charged. The Evolution weighs just 140 kilograms without the driver, and has more than $750,000 worth of space-grade solar cells on its roof, donated by NASA.

When not confined to a paddock, the Aurora Evolution can traverse whole continents. Since 1987, it has secured six top-three placings in the World Solar Challenge, an annual race from Adelaide to Darwin, described in Aurora collateral as “the thinking man’s alternative to Grand Prix racing”. Brook tells me that the Aurora Evolution’s motor is 98% efficient. “By comparison, a petrol internal combustion engine is lucky to be 30% efficient,” he explains.

I ask when we are likely to see this miraculous full-solar technology on the roads.

“It’ll never work,” Brook says. “You get one kilowatt per square metre [of solar panels] out of the sun, but your average car runs on 120kW, so you’d need 120 square metres of solar panels” – which would equate to a stretch Hummer about 60 metres long. In the short term (notwithstanding radical advances in photovoltaic cell efficiency), Brook reckons the best we can hope for is “a solar-assisted electric car. You coat as much of it as possible in solar panels, which you use as range extension, not your core power.”

So, where does that core power come from? Critics of EVs (especially fossil fuel lobbyists) are quick to note that EVs aren’t carbon-neutral per se, but have ‘long exhaust pipes’. Instead of releasing petrol fumes in cities, they indirectly produce wasteful emissions in, for example, brown-coal power stations. Even in a less-than-ideal scenario of ‘coal-powered’ electric vehicles, however, modelling shows this would reduce carbon emissions by 45%. Trucks, cars and other road transport produce 67.8 million tonnes, about for 12% of Australia’s carbon emissions; EVs would reduce this by approximately 30 million tonnes. While this is nothing to cough bronchially at, cynics might suggest this is like an alcoholic admitting they have a drinking problem, then switching from gin to sherry and announcing themselves ‘cured’.

So, where should that core power come from? Renewable energy, of course: and until the Federal Government gets its act together, this means cars charged at home by domestic solar panels. Michael Jacombs, convener of the ATA’s Electric Vehicle Interest Group and organiser of today’s EV gathering, says, “almost everybody who is buying or converting an electric car has put in or is putting in solar panels”. This is great news – except that so far there are only about 150 fully electric vehicles in Australia, mainly do-it-yourself jobs.

Converting an ordinary car from petrol to electric isn’t cheap (yet). Depending on the type of battery pack you use – lead-acid is cheaper, but lithium-ion is better – a conversion costs between $10,000 and $20,000, not counting labour costs. It’s worth noting that most EV enthusiasts do the work themselves; partly to save money, but mainly for the challenge and tinkering thrill of it.

Just before midday, a squat, boxy, bottle-green car towing a vaguely military contraption rattles into the paddock and parks opposite the Aurora Evolution. The vehicle looks like it should be registered to Mr Bean. Heads turn. Leigh Hateley steps out, wearing a blue Slazenger sweatshirt and clutching a can of 7-Up, and proceeds to hold court.

Hateley is the proud owner of a vintage Enfield 8000 electric car, which he bought from an EV nut in NSW a few years ago for $4,600. Hateley explains that the Enfield 8000 was built back in 1973 by an eccentric Greek billionaire on the island of Syros, in response to the Oil Shocks. In total about 120 electric Enfields were manufacturer but – due to “tax categorisation issues” – it was denied permits for mass-production in Greece, and it never took off.

The Enfield 8000 can run for about 60km without recharging, which is further than most Australian commuters drive in a day. When Hateley wants to drive further, like today, he attaches a home-made ‘range extender’ – a modified Briggs and Stratton two-stroke lawnmower engine towed on a trailer, activated by a Shimano gear-lever (adapted from a mountain bike), fitted onto the Enfield’s handbrake. MacGyver would be jealous.

“People say they [electric cars] don’t work,” Hateley tells the small crowd that has gathered by his vehicle. “I had a guy come up to me a few years ago, and he said, ‘Electric cars will never work, we’ll never have electric cars on the road, they just don’t work,’ and I said, ‘Damn, I’ve done 80,000 kilometres in mine, I guess it doesn’t work’.”

People weren’t always so cynical about EVs. In the early 1900s, before the twin miracles of cheap petroleum and Fordist assembly lines took humanity for a ride, there were more EVs on the roads than petrol cars. (Watch Who Killed the Electric Car? for a short, scandalous primer on the subject.) But in 2012 Australia’s consumer market for EVs is set to transform. Right now, the world’s two biggest-selling EVs are the Nissan Leaf (21,000+ units) and the Mitsubishi I MiEV (17,000+ units), which should soon be available in Australia. Meanwhile, almost every major car manufacturer – including BMW, Chevrolet, Renault, Ford and Holden – has plans to release EVs in the next couple of years.

As I leave the EV convergence, two square-jawed, Holden-logo-emblazoned, potato-cake-munching auto engineering students peer, fascinated, into the bonnet of Hateley’s Enfield. Hateley strolls over with his hot chips and starts talking lead-acid versus lithium-ion. The three of them stand there, eating yellow food and marvelling at the possibilities of electric transportation. It occurs to me that EVs could be a kind of gateway drug into other, more radical transformations – of our transit system, our energy grid, our very way of life.

I can’t wait.

(This article originally appeared in The Big Issue no 402)