A few hybrids don’t make a transport transition policy

Peter Gutwein is proud of his hybrid vehicles, but where’s his real solution to transport emissions?

The wheels of government move slowly, but they do move. After more than six years in power and many claims of global climate leadership, Tasmanian Liberal ministers are finally committing to using electric cars.

Premier Peter Gutwein told parliament a fortnight ago that he would be the first Tasmanian premier ever to travel in a hybrid car – a vehicle powered by both electricity and petrol or diesel. The latter option helps drivers cope with a lack of charging stations.

Currently, hybrid vehicles make up just five per cent of the government’s fleet, but Gutwein wants to change that. In his next budget he promises “an ambitious target for electric and hybrid vehicles across the government fleet and a road map to get there”. That will build on about $2.5 million worth of charging infrastructure now being installed in key locations.

It took a while, but at least it’s happening. The biggest hurdle in our state’s push to lower carbon emissions is transport. A statewide all-electric car fleet powered by renewable energy could make Tasmania a genuine climate leader, rather than a pretend one.

But there’s a lot more to be said about this important transition. First question: why does the government want to bother with hybrid cars?

This complex technology – hybrid vehicles have many times more moving parts than pure electric ones – has value for transitional purposes when charging infrastructure is still being installed. But to acquire hybrid cars when that installation is well advanced suggests a want of confidence in the government’s own system.

Gutwein feels proud about travelling in a hybrid vehicle, but hybrids still use imported fossil fuels, which cost our economy around a billion dollars a year. How much prouder would he feel to be travelling in a car that runs solely on home-grown electricity?

In Europe, the US and China, current vehicle battery technology is mature enough to persuade drivers, manufacturers and governments that pure electric, not hybrid, is where the future lies. For instance, General Motors recently stopped making hybrid vehicles to focus on electric-only.

If the ultimate policy goal is a smaller Tasmanian carbon footprint, as it surely must be, a few more electric vehicles in the government fleet will make no discernible difference to our substantial transport emissions. Their value is symbolic.

What will make a difference is large numbers of people switching to electric vehicles powered by clean energy. Which gives rise to two more, much bigger, questions.

First, where is the additional power coming from to recharge all those vehicle batteries? Exactly how these vehicles can interact with a power grid is still being worked out, but as battery and smart-grid technology rapidly improves the amount of power needed won’t be as much as we might think. Even so, demand will definitely rise.

Unless Tasmania can develop new sources of renewable energy as electric car sales pick up, the power for their batteries would have to come from Victoria (mostly coal-fired) or the gas-fired Tamar Valley power station. That would seem to defeat the whole purpose of an electrified fleet.

The second big question is about how our island’s community can pay for the transition from current combustion-engine vehicles.

As electric transport technology improves and prices decline, today’s snazzy SUVs will become tomorrow’s unsaleable clunkers unless conversion to electric drive is within the reach of average households. Given that Tasmania’s median income is just 75 per cent of the national average, conversion should be a high government priority.

The government would by now be well aware that the 2008 Climate Change (State Action) Act, currently under review, is no longer fit for purpose and must be replaced. But its replacement will also fail if the government does not address this leading source of Tasmanian emissions, transport. The bottom line is that we’re ill-prepared for social and economic disruption on this scale.

Fixing that will be neither easy nor cheap. The new renewable energy needed, plus substantial measures to smooth the transition to electrified private and public transport, call for real commitment by successive governments prepared to work steadily to a plan over at least a decade.

We hear a lot about vision in political chatter, but today’s governments tend to respond to the moment. We can only hope that the pandemic has started them thinking longer term.

The addition of a few electric vehicles to the government fleet is worth noting, but it’s not a game changer. Without hard thinking and heavy lifting from Peter Gutwein’s government, those new hybrids will quickly lose their shine.

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