First Published in Crux by Georgia Merton on Apr 4, 2019
With petrol prices over $2.30 a litre, the annual electric vehicle road trip couldn’t have picked a better time to roll (quietly) into Wanaka. As their name suggests, they are quite literally ‘Leading the Charge’ on electric cars, driving the length of the country to change people’s perceptions. The fleet, which includes an electric campervan from Queenstown, arrived and parked up on Wanaka’s lakefront around 3pm today.
As with any tech breakthrough (did anyone else think the idea of putting music on your phone was outrageous?), there are plenty of preconceived ideas around electric cars, both true and untrue. But Carl Barlev, who started the battery powered road trip and its trust, Better NZ, in 2015, is on a mission to give people a chance to have their minds changed.
Mr Barlev, who worked for Tesla in Norway for six years, and brought one of the first two electric cars into New Zealand in 2014, says the uptake since then has been massive. “We were late to start, but our growth rate has been one of the highest in the world. We’ve had over 100% growth every year, and the biggest limiting factor has been people’s perceptions around electric cars. The best way to change that is to give them a chance to drive one,” he says.
And what exactly are these perceptions? To start with, for many the aspiring environmentalist, an electric car is often labelled a ‘later’ thing, a ‘when I can afford it’ addition. And it’s true, a brand new high-end model with a range of 400 kms will set you back over $50k. But, as Mr Burlev explains, most EVs in New Zealand are second hand imports from Japan. “A second hand Generation One Nissan Leaf, which is an eight year old car, is selling now for around 11-12k,” he says, “And that’ll give you a 80-90km range.”
Once you make this investment, though, your EV will be seven times cheaper to run than a petrol car. With 18% of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions coming from petrol and diesel transport, it’s a worthy cause, especially given that we are one of the few countries where our power comes from renewable energy sources.
Let’s come back to that ‘range’, though, because it’s this (or lack of) that also has people hesitating to make the switch. The range is how far you can drive your electric car before you’ve got to stop and charge up. While the latest purely electric models could get you from Wanaka to Christchurch without stopping, the cheaper (second hand) ones are more limited. That being said, a plug-in hybrid can take you further, but you’ll be using petrol.
According to Mr Barlev, charging infrastructure has been a limiting factor in New Zealand. It’s actually been Steve West, the co-founder of Better NZ, who is responsible for building the network up to what it is now, which includes 140 Fast Charging stations across the country. Depending on how drained your battery is, these stations will take about fifteen minutes to get you back up to 80%. There are also apps around now, such as PlugShare and PowerTrip that help EV owners overcome ‘Range Anxiety’ (yes, it’s a thing). These apps help predict your driving range, track your battery performance and find charging stations on your route.
According to Dave Hawkins, the founder of Central Otago’s electric car club and organiser of today’s event, the lack of charging infrastructure has posed a problem for Wanaka EV owners. “With a cheaper model, you’re limited to local runs - you can’t quite get to Omarama, and there are no chargers up the West Coast until you get to Hokitika,” he says.