Experts, just about everyone and even the government would like New Zealanders to be zipping around in electric cars. But it won’t happen, at least not rapidly. Otago University’s Director of the Centre for Sustainability Dr Janet Stephenson explains. She also tells us why New Zealanders are buying photovoltaic solar panels, wonders why we’re buying electric bicycles, and points out that the new Royal Society of New Zealand report on Climate Change Mitigation Options for New Zealand found only one highway to low emissions – reducing the use of fossil fuels.
What is the importance of the Royal Society of New Zealand report?
The thing that’s really important about the Royal Society report is that no one until now has pulled together in a comprehensive way the mitigation opportunities for New Zealand. It’s very important from that perspective. In our work on it we started off talking about different pathways to achieving lower emissions but found there is really only one highway and that is simply reducing the use of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas, in that order of priority. That really has to be the main change in the short-to-medium term, and there are other opportunities in the longer term. But the big focus has to be how do we cut fossil fuels out of our lives.
Cutting fossil fuels means driving electric vehicles, right?
Well, that is one of many actions people can take. But the problem is the timeframe. In our Energy Cultures research programme we were interested how long it would take to get 20 percent of New Zealand’s transport fleet to be electric vehicles, and experts gave us a range of answers from 5-20 years. However, when we did some modelling on uptake we found that unless there were policies to support it, you might only get around five percent of electric vehicles in the fleet in 20 years, partly because we don’t tend to buy new cars, and hold on to our old cars for such a long time. There’s a lot of hope about the implications of electric vehicles for reducing our emissions but it’s unlikely to have much of an impact in the next couple of decades unless prices come way down or there is strong policy support.
The Minister of Transport is super keen on electric vehicles and has said a number of times over the past year that the government will be bringing in some policies to support faster uptake, but we haven’t seen anything yet.
From a global perspective, EV uptake also depends on the improvement and lowering in price of things like battery storage or retrofitting. You really have to look across the fleet and ask where are the niche opportunities for EVs? Those are probably going to be in areas where people are doing short trips like commuting, or high mileage but stopping so they can recharge, or in vehicles that move slowly but need huge grunt. Retrofitting bus fleets might be a good example. There is a lot more work needed to be done beyond simply the importation of electric vehicles. There are also opportunities for thinking more broadly about not necessary replacing like with like.
If we don’t replace petrol or diesel cars with electric cars, then what?
There are a number of really interesting other options – obviously more use of public transport, biking and walking, but there are also new types of electric vehicles coming in – like the light three-wheeled and four-wheeled delivery vehicles that New Zealand Post is already using in New Plymouth, and electric bikes. If we get a big uptake of lighter more vulnerable vehicles it may require a rethink on layouts of roads. We’re seeing new businesses emerging globally that offer access to shared cars or bikes, as well as people clubbing together to share ownership. In the near future, autonomous vehicles will be able to zoom around picking people up and delivering them. Shared vehicles allow much more efficient use of a smaller number of vehicles.
Urban freight is a particularly under-researched area and we’re also really interested in changes around active transport – New Zealanders are walking and cycling more, although we tend to use bicycles for recreation rather than commuting or getting to school. But there’s a big surge in uptake of electric bikes and the interesting thing is they allow you to go faster and therefore be safer in urban traffic, as well as not be sweaty when you get to work. We’re not sure what people are using them for and this is something we’d like to find out more about.
Change can actually happen remarkably fast when a society is ready for it, as we’re seeing with things like the internet and mobile phones. And change can also occur in quite unanticipated ways. Our team has done work looking at mobility choices amongst young people. There is a significant change occurring in many parts where young people are getting drivers licenses much later, if at all, and they are much less likely to own a car. Nobody is exactly sure why this is happening, but it’s likely to be driven by a whole lots of influences coming together. In research for the Ministry of Transport, one of our researchers found that for some young people owning a car is no longer symbolic of having made it, being a grown up. Instead cars are seen as an expensive problem and it is felt that it’s better to have the freedom of different choices about how to get from a to b, such as walking, biking, or public transport. Obviously this works better in an urban situation but this generational shift is definitely something that is occurring in New Zealand.
Are there shifts on other kinds of energy use?
Yes, I’m part of another research programme called Green Grid, where we look at the future of the electricity grid under high levels of renewable generation, smart technologies, and consumers adopting new technologies. One of the more intriguing aspects of our work is where we are seeing an intersection of people’s aspirations with technology developments so that people are being able to move quite rapidly in new directions.
Photovoltaics are a really interesting example. If you look at the uptake curve in New Zealand – bearing in mind that New Zealand has no subsidies – we have seen a rapid uptake of photovoltaics since 2012. Our research has shown that New Zealanders have an immense appetite for this. While decisions may be triggered by the fact that PV prices have fallen a lot in recent years, this is not necessarily a rational economic decision if you did all the sums. Instead, people are mainly doing it so that they don’t have to be so reliant on buying power from their electricity company, they want some independence, and this has been shown across various surveys we have done. New Zealanders are taking up photovoltaics because of this interesting desire for independence; not primarily for environmental reasons or because they think they are going to make a profit, which tend to be the drivers elsewhere in the world.
As a result of this rapid uptake, lines companies in New Zealand are doing a bit of a double take. If the rate of uptake continues it could have quite serious implications for them, if it’s not well managed. Overall responses from the energy sector have been variable, some saying it shouldn’t be happening, it’s not economically rational. Others are saying it’s better to invest in electric vehicles because they are better at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Both may be true, but that’s not the point … think about what drives people’s choices when they buy a car, or a house. It would rarely be the environment or making money! This appetite amongst Kiwis for PV means that there are now a proliferation of companies installing photovoltaics, some offering zero upfront cost offers for installation. Interestingly, once people have PV and are making their own power, it changes how they use energy and is creating new understandings of energy in people’s everyday lives, leading to more consciousness of energy use.
Are there actually environmental benefits when people install photovoltaics?
Yes, but they are really around the diversification of energy generation to local levels. If you’re looking at where this might go in the future, it’s into what we’re calling prosumer collectives. A prosumer is someone who both consumes and produces electricity. People can be prosumers as individuals, but internationally we are starting to see people start to collectivise. One example is clusters of people buying and selling their surplus solar power to each other. If you have a PV and don’t use it all, you can have a direct relationship with someone else who can use it – say with someone who has a flat in the city and has no opportunity to generate power. There is strong interest in this in New Zealand.
These kinds of changes are making the electricity industry quite nervous, because there are really remarkable implications. New and far cheaper forms of energy storage are emerging as well. One way of looking at it is to think about phone choice: with a digital phone you give up on 100% reliability (because sometimes you might be out of range) but for that you gain a whole lot of benefits as opposed to having a landline. You can think of electrical systems in this way. If you think the benefits of something like PV are worth it, even if you lose some reliability, you might just make the switch.
To learn about how New Zealand can take action on climate change, see the Taking Action section of the Royal Society of New Zealand report Transition to a low-carbon economy for New Zealand.
These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.