EVs Demystified

Words by Andy Bassett

Electric cars have been around since 1897, yet they have only begun to gain market traction in the last decade, as worldwide acknowledgment of climate change has led us to explore alternatives to fossil fuels. 

In an effort to level the playing field in terms of capital outlay, the New Zealand government introduced the Clean Car Discount, providing a rebate on new EVs, and secondhand Japanese imports registered between 1 July and 31 December 2021. 

LIVE writer, Andy Bassett, took a Leaf out of the EV manual, buying a 30kWh 2016 Nissan Leaf last year.

He presents common questions about EVs and endeavours to find the most up-to-date answers in the fastest-growing sector of the world’s transportation market.

# 1: Is manufacturing EV batteries worse for the environment than oil and gas production?

This stems from the basic truth that there is an additional environmental cost to manufacturing EVs, mostly from battery production. This begins with lithium mining, the most damaging method being mining from hard rock deposits, which as of 2019 accounted for 26 percent of all lithium sourced worldwide. Fifty-eight percent comes from underground brine reservoirs below dried lake beds in countries like Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. While producing less carbon than rock mining, this method requires a lot of additional water and land, which impacts on the indigenous people. Geothermal extraction requires less than a hundredth as much water, 3,000 times less land and produces practically no carbon emissions. It is already happening in the US, UK, Germany and here in New Zealand. Two massive lithium fields in California have the potential to hugely increase geothermal lithium’s percentage of the market.

The oceans are another vast source of lithium, though in low concentrations. Development of efficient methods of extracting lithium from seawater is still in the early stages.

EV battery production also requires the mining of other minerals such as cobalt, aluminium, vanadium, nickel, phosphate, sulphur and manganese. These all have an environmental impact and several of them raise the spectre of seabed mining, with its accompanying ecological issues in the form of creating sediments, noise and vibrations. 

The manufacturing stage creates the bulk of the carbon footprint of an EV. Viewed over the lifetime of the vehicle, however, its footprint is still substantially lower than an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. The average life of a car is about 18 years. Comparing the emissions of an ICE vehicle and an EV over that time, including the manufacture and delivery of the vehicle, the average EV achieves carbon parity after the first year or so (less or more, depending on the power infrastructure of the country it is in. See #2 below). After that point, ICE vehicles continue to rack up the emissions (around 4.6 million grams per year). And that’s before factoring in the huge environmental toll of drilling, pumping, transporting and refining the oil. 

# 2: Our power grid is using more coal than ever, so aren’t EVs really running on coal?

It is a sad fact that New Zealand is importing more coal now than at any time in the past 14 years. About a third of the imported coal is consumed by the Glenbrook Steel Mill, south of Auckland, and Golden Bay Cement in Whangārei. The rest goes to Huntly Power Station, which currently provides up to 10 percent of the North Island’s power at peak times due to a combination of low hydro lake levels caused by dry weather, and lower gas production caused by outages and maintenance shutdowns. This has nothing to do with the government’s moratorium on offshore exploration, which has zero effect on existing gas production.

While 10 percent is still an unacceptably high amount, the flipside is that 90 percent of our electricity comes from other sources, including an average of 77.7 percent renewable. In terms of fuelling EVs, most EV owners charge at home overnight, when demand is lower, the percentage of coal-fired power drops to zero, and many providers offer cheaper rates.

The Climate Change Commission plans to phase out coal power altogether by 2025. This might be easier than you think, as long as the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter closes by the end of 2024 as planned. This one plant uses a staggering 13 percent of New Zealand’s entire electricity output — all of it hydro-electricity from Lake Manapōuri. When it closes, that renewable energy will go back into the national grid. 

At any time, you can check the percentages being used at www.electricitymap.org/map – a global site monitoring carbon intensity of electricity consumed from any country supplying such information. During regular checks of this site between July and November, power usage on the North Island stayed around 84% renewable sources, with coal and oil consistently at zero. The South Island was 100% hydro.

Recent studies by the British universities of Exeter and Cambridge, and the Dutch university of Nijmegen determined that in 95% of the world, driving an EV is better for the climate than driving an ICE vehicle. The only exceptions were countries such as Poland, where electricity generation is still mostly based on coal. 

A 2019 report by New Zealand’s Science Learning Hub compared the lifetime carbon footprint of EVs versus ICE vehicles in Australia and New Zealand, using 2018 figures. In Australia, with 21 percent renewable energy, EVs came out about 18 percent ahead, whereas in New Zealand (84 percent renewable in 2018) EVs had a 62 percent better carbon footprint than ICE vehicles.

#3: Can lithium batteries be reused or recycled?

EV batteries have been recycled for a few years now, with the percentage of recyclable materials increasing each year. The German-based Duesenfeld company can mechanically recycle batteries to 72 percent, after which a hydrometallurgical process of the “black mass” materials — graphite, cobalt, nickel, manganese and lithium — raises this to 91 percent. As they can separate the electrolytes from the rest of the battery in situ, thus removing the need for hazardous goods containers, they can transport up to seven times as much battery material in one go as more conventional recycling processes. 

Furthermore, Duesenfeld recycle all the metals into secondary raw materials — even for use in new batteries — rather than simply breaking it down for use in roading and construction. This means that Duesenfeld save 8.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) for each tonne of battery, practically double the CO2 saving of conventional recycling methods. They even use the discharged residual energy from the battery to help power the recycling process. 

Meanwhile, Tesla co-founder JB Straubel has set up a plant in Nevada, Redwood Materials, to recycle (ironically) Nissan Leaf battery packs. Closer to home, Australian company Envirostream has been recycling EV batteries since 2017. There are many other battery recycling operations around the world, including the USA, France, Belgium and China.

When an EV battery pack has exceeded its useful life in a car, it still has enough power to be used as storage for home electricity in solar energy systems. Without having to carry its own weight around, plus that of a car, and without the demands of fast chargers, this second life could run to decades. A discarded Nissan Leaf battery with 19kWh of storage can power an entire average home for upwards of two days.

Here in New Zealand, the Battery Industry Group (BIG), with over 170 members across sectors such as energy, waste, batteries, transport and academia, is working on a scheme to enable more repurposing and recycling of batteries here. Its members include Vector, AA, Drive Electric and WasteMINZ.

It is hard to determine the exact number or percentage of all dead batteries recycled worldwide.  But bearing in mind the value of the battery materials, to simply dump them would be foolish. Nissan, Volkswagen and Renault all now run their own battery recycling systems. Volkswagen quoted 3,600 batteries per annum during the pilot phase, while Renault numbered only a few hundred (due to the relatively small number of batteries needing recycling as yet). Nissan and Volkswagen also use their old batteries to power the automated guided vehicles that deliver parts to workers in their factories.

#4: Doesn’t replacing a battery cost more than a new car?

There have been reported instances of people being quoted outrageous prices for replacement of an EV battery. The most notable is Canberra EV owner Phillip Carlson, who in 2019 was quoted AUS$33,000 by a local company to replace the battery in his Nissan Leaf. The car had cost him $53,000 new in 2012. The less-publicised outcome of this was that Nissan Australia did the job under their already existing battery exchange programme, for its standard fee of AUS$9,000 plus labour — a grand total of AUS$10,500.

Battery refurbishment (replacement of degraded cells) is another alternative. Nissan Japan began a programme in 2018 whereby Leaf owners could trade in degraded batteries in exchange for refurbished replacements. At about NZ$5000 for a 24kWh battery, this is a cheaper option than a new battery pack, while the extended battery life also helps retain the resale value of the car.

While Nissan offer no such programmes here, Christchurch-based EVs Enhanced is the first New Zealand company to offer battery replacement and upgrading services for the Nissan Leaf. For example, they will replace a 30kWh battery with a 40kWh one for around $15,000. They also offer a trade-in on old batteries, which are then either reused in Leafs of even lower battery health or repurposed for solar power storage.

In most cases, battery replacement only becomes a consideration eight to ten years down the track, by which time you may be considering a new car. Provided the car itself is mechanically sound, there is no reason why you could not simply replace the battery — with the option of upgrading to one with a substantially larger capacity — rather than the whole car. The cost would be recouped by what you will have saved on petrol over those years (about $2000 per year for the average New Zealand driver). And as more competition opens up in the battery replacement market, costs will come down. Plus you can sell the old battery to a recycler or use it for solar power storage at home.

#5: Range anxiety and charging times

One of the biggest concerns non-EV drivers have about EVs is the fear of being stranded miles from anywhere. It’s not like you can carry an emergency can of electricity in the boot. Speaking to EV owners, this anxiety tends to disappear once you have been driving one for a while. Unless you drive long distances a lot, most of the time you’ll be charging at home, overnight, probably from a standard 3-pin plug, and never experience range anxiety at all.

Just like ICE vehicles, EVs give you plenty of warning before you run out of fuel. They all display the percentage of battery power left, and an estimate of remaining range, which can fluctuate depending on your driving style and how much of your journey is on the open road, or uphill. Driving from New Plymouth to Stratford, for example, uses twice as much power as the return journey.

A useful feature of EVs is regenerative braking, whereby if you take your foot off the accelerator when travelling downhill, the wheels act like a dynamo, returning charge into the battery. The first time this writer drove an EV, the car gained 8 percent charge between North Egmont Visitor Centre and Egmont Village.

The range of EVs is increasing every year and comes down to how much you want to spend on the car. The Tesla Model 3 Long Range claims a range of over 500km on one charge, the latest 62kWh Nissan Leaf offers 364km, and the MG ZS EV, the cheapest new EV available in New Zealand, 263km.

ChargeNet aims to have no more than 80km between fast-chargers on its network. In November, they overcame one of their biggest obstacles to this, with the installation of a fast-charger in Mokau. So now you can drive to Auckland in even a small EV in one day – Covid levels permitting! Fast-charging times vary according to how big your battery is, and what kind of charger (Tesla has its own limited network of even faster Superchargers). My 30kWh Leaf will charge from 20 to 80% (about 130km range) in 17 minutes, or one coffee stop, for less than $8. There are also several free fast-chargers in Wellington, and between Taupiri and Warkworth, with a time limit of 30 minutes to avoid larger vehicles hogging them for two hours at a time.

For those rare occasions when you do run out completely, the AA has been trialling mobile battery chargers in Wellington, supplying enough power to drive up to 10km. This service will extend to other parts of the country in the near future.

#6: Forget EVs – aren’t hydrogen vehicles the future?

First of all, in New Zealand it’s not an either/or situation, as the two are not in direct competition. If anything, they complement each other. The hydrogen refuelling network being developed by New Plymouth-based Hiringa Energy is aimed at the heavy and long-distance commercial transport market, such as trucks and buses, rather than private cars. The heaviest trucks drive the most kilometres and emit over 150 times more CO2 than average passenger vehicles. Hiringa’s hydrogen network aims to maximise decarbonisation impact by targeting heavy vehicles, an area where EVs fall short due to the huge amount of battery power required to carry a heavy payload over a long distance.

Hydrogen vehicles still use electricity to power the motor. The difference is they generate this directly from a fuel cell, rather than a battery, hence hydrogen vehicles are known as FCEVs, and battery vehicles BEVs.

“A city commuter vehicle is not the main use of this technology,” says Hiringa Energy CEO Andrew Clennett. “Battery vehicles will be perfectly adequate for the majority of uses here. The advantage comes in if you need to drive more than 100km, and/or carry a payload. Then a hydrogen vehicle can drive 600 to 800 km and fill in 5 to 15 minutes, depending on how big the vehicle is. This is important if you drive a lot of kilometres, for example as an Uber driver in the city or a truck driver driving across the country. If your vehicle earns its money by being on the road, if you earn from carrying a payload, et cetera, then this is where hydrogen comes in.” 

Hiringa currently expect their first refuelling stations to come online by mid-2022, with approximately 24 stations scheduled to be online across New Zealand by 2026. While this network is currently focussed on the commercial and large vehicle sector, it could accommodate FCEV cars too, when New Zealand has a market for them. 

Overseas, hydrogen cars are still being developed, though as yet with a small market and even smaller refuelling infrastructure. Toyota in particular have invested a lot in hydrogen. Back in the early 2000s, they stood at the forefront of the green transportation revolution with their hugely successful hybrid Prius. 

Both Hyundai and Toyota are currently pitching their FCEV cars as potential long-distance fleet vehicles for businesses in New Zealand, once the first Hiringa refuelling stations are operational. 

To date, hydrogen has been quite costly as a fuel. A September 2020 report in the UK by the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) showed that, in terms of cost per hundred kilometres, hydrogen was about 70 percent more expensive than petrol and four times as much as a battery EV. However, technology is evolving and that cost has already dramatically come down, as Andrew Clennett points out. “We will reach parity with petrol cars when we are online next year. It is expected that by the latter part of this decade hydrogen trucks will be cheaper than diesel trucks — commercial diesel is only a third of the cost of retail petrol.”

As with all future energy sources, there is the constant challenge to become greener. While most of the hydrogen produced globally as fuel, mainly for refineries and fertiliser manufacture, is made using gas and coal, there is an increase in the production of “green hydrogen” using wind, solar and geothermal power to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water. New Zealand is already producing geothermal hydrogen at Halcyon Power’s Mokai plant in Tāupo and BOC in Glenbrook. Hiringa’s refuelling network will use 100 percent renewable hydrogen. 

Finally, another untapped possible hydrogen source exists in copious quantities in New Zealand. Since as far back as 2006, scientists have been researching how to produce hydrogen from cow manure. In California, where only 40 percent of hydrogen fuel comes from renewable sources, Toyota are currently leading that particular charge, claiming the 2021 Mirai could run for a year on the manure from one cow — or bull.

#7: Can EVs tow?

Yes, they can. The only limitations are the weight rating of your towbar, and the amount of additional energy you wish to expend. 

As with petrol or diesel, the bigger the item being towed, the more powerful the vehicle required. Still, in a 2017 Nissan publicity stunt, a mere 40kWh Nissan e-NV200 van was used to tow Australian actress Margot Robbie’s eco-friendly house — though it needed a towbar rated higher than that vehicle’s standard 430kg.

For longer-range towing, German travel-trailer and motorhome maker Dethleffs have developed a powered trailer with batteries built into its frame to negate the loss of range. In July they towed one behind an Audi E-Tron Sportback on a popular 380-km route across the Alps on a single charge. The production model will weigh around 400 kilos.

Closer to home, on 22 July of this year, Whanganui resident Jared Wood used his 40kWh Nissan Leaf to tow a Mitsubishi Pajero 4×4 that had become stuck in wet sand near the mouth of the Whanganui river. “It was easy to tow out,” says Jared. “Took about 10 seconds once it was hooked up. I don’t have a towbar, just hooked it onto a hitch loop under the rear bumper.”

# 8: Wouldn’t an EV stuck in a traffic jam run out of power?

When a petrol car is standing still on an Auckland motorway, as so often happens, its engine will still be idling over. When an EV is standing still, its motor ceases expending any energy. The battery pack may still be using some power to control the air conditioning, if it’s on. It also uses some energy to charge the 12-volt battery, which powers all other electric functions such as the stereo, windows, lights, door locks, heated seats and heated steering wheel — yes, EVs have those too! 

The air conditioner in a Nissan Leaf uses about 3.5 kilowatts when turned on, dropping back quickly to one kilowatt, so a fully charged 24kWh Leaf stuck in a snowstorm, for example, with its aircon running the whole time, would last just under a day before its battery died.

#9: When driving an EV through a flood, don’t you risk electrocution?

First let us consider the International Electrotechnical Commission’s Ingress Protection (IP) rating. This is a two-digit rating applied to anything from a mobile phone to a fridge. The first digit is for ingress of solid particles, on a scale of 1 to 6, and the second is for the ingress of liquids, on a scale of 1 to 8. A Nissan Leaf, for example, has an IP rating of 67, which means that it is protected against water ingress at up to a metre depth. That’s one rating below a submarine.

Ingress is one thing — what about driving? Nissan’s own water tests, and anecdotal reports from Leaf owners on the South Island during this winter’s floods, show the Leaf can drive comfortably through 700mm of water. Incidentally, 700mm is the same depth used by Toyota to promote the capability of the Hilux to drive through water. 

During the July floods in China, Tesla drivers posted videos from inside their cars as they safely drove through water almost up to their windscreens. And demonstrations of Land Rover’s electric Defender driving in a river show that it can essentially act as a boat — though the wheels produce a lot of spray!

#10: Do EVs present a bigger fire risk than ICE vehicles?

Are EVs more likely to catch fire than petrol or diesel vehicles? 

Because EVs are relatively new, there is still not enough empirical data out there to give a definitive statistical answer. We can tell you that petrol and diesel fires are quicker to start, due to their very nature as combustible fuels, while the duration and intensity of EV fires make them harder to put out. 

In April of this year, Tesla backed up a 2018 claim that petrol powered cars are about 11 times more likely to catch fire than a Tesla. Measuring the number of fires per billion miles travelled, for the period between 2012 to 2020, there has been about one Tesla fire for every 205 million miles travelled, or approximately five per billion miles, compared to a rate of 55 fires per billion miles in petrol cars.

On the other hand, the London Fire Brigade reported attending 54 electric vehicle fires (0.1% of fleet) in 2019. During the same period, they attended 1,898 petrol and diesel car fires (0.04% of fleet), so the ratio of fires per number of vehicles on the road is more than double for EVs. However, the statistics do not show causes, which could be anything from overheated battery to house fire to arson (the latter two apply to ICE vehicles too).

General Motors had to make two recalls of the 2017-19 models of the Chevrolet Bolt due to fire risk. The first, in November 2020, was a software upgrade, following five fires that, in the words of GM executive chief engineer Jesse Ortega, “could be related to the high voltage batteries” in the vehicles. All appeared to occur when the battery was charged close to 100 percent. The second recall in July resulted from two more fires in Bolts that had received the previous upgrade. GM advise Bolt owners not to charge above 90 percent.

Petrol or diesel are not the only flammable liquids in cars. Engine oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid and power steering fluid are all flammable — and these last three apply to EVs, too.

#11: Is it true that Japanese car makers and exporters are putting their prices up, to cash in on the Clean Car Discount?

The prices of new and secondhand Japanese imports in New Zealand — EV, ICE and hybrid — has been steadily rising all year. This is due to a combination of increased demand and a global shortage of shipping containers during the Covid pandemic. This has dramatically slowed down international movement of vehicles. So yes, prices went up again in July, but by a factor much lower than the Clean Car Discount and for all imported vehicles, not just EVs. This was predicted by the Imported Motor Vehicle Industry Association last November and already observed and reported by Auckland-based importers Autohub back in May. The Clean Car Discount wasn’t announced until 14 June and only implemented on 1 July.

#12: Will EVs ever take over from ICE vehicles?

The UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Norway and Canada have all announced a phase-out of combustion-engine cars. As the world’s governments work to meet their own emissions targets, the overall trend in the motor vehicle industry has been down the road of hybrids and on towards EVs. In New Zealand alone, alongside the two main EV flagships — the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla — you can buy fully electric cars by such makers as Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, MG, Mini, Renault, Mitsubishi, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW and Jaguar.

The Daimler group, which in addition to its Daimler and Mercedes-Benz brands owns a range of truck and bus companies (including Freightliner, Western Star and Mitsubishi Fuso), announced in July that it plans to go completely electric by 2030.

The Stellantis group — the sixth largest car manufacturer in the world, which owns over a dozen brands, including Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Citroën, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, Maserati, Peugeot and Vauxhall — has abandoned development of internal combustion engines and plans to invest 30 billion euros to electrify its models by 2025. Opel is aiming for all its European vehicles to be 100-percent electric by 2028.

No one thing will take over from ICE vehicles but the reality is that the world is moving away from oil and gas. In order to fulfil our transport needs whilst meeting our emissions targets, we require a shift in mindset as much as technological advances. We need to learn to reduce vehicle use by minimising short journeys, taking up cycling and walking, increasing use of public transport where possible, vehicle sharing, and working more from home. The days of a single-industry monopoly are gone. EVs are just one of many solutions, both technological and societal, which will work together to take us into the future.

ELECTRICARNA 2022

Sunday 27 February 2022, 9am — 6pm at East End Reserve.

Come and see a range of electric vehicles, hybrids and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and ask owners and dealers all about EVs.

Sources of information used in this feature. 

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https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018771248/used-car-prices-could-be-about-to-rise

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