If nothing else, the car industry can sniff a solid commercial opportunity. So the sprint is on, to an allegedly clean, green, zero-emission EV future.

Many people can’t wait.

Electric vehicle news is everywhere. As I write this, Google tells me BMW is the latest premium German carmaker to jump on board the Mainstream EV Express, recently signing a billion-dollar battery supply deal with China’s biggest battery manufacturer.

Locally, a redundant senate committee will investigate the case for local EV manufacturing. And in Helsinki, an EV taxi service (Fortum Singalong Shuttle) will take you from A to B in its i3 for – literally – a song. Those crazy Finns…

Across the developed world, there’s a growing, cult-like belief in the planet-saving power of EVs. Elon Musk is the poster boy. Ask around: some people see Mr Musk as the harbinger of a future in which we are liberated from the burdens of climate change and pollution, while at the same time busting the shackles that bind us to hydrocarbons. Mankind, literally, powering ahead.

But how green are EVs, really, in Australia, right now?

This report is an attempt to break that down into a digestible format.

Obviously, there are no tailpipe emissions with electric vehicles. This is a big deal. According to the Federal Government, pollution from road transport kills more Australians prematurely than road trauma.

Big win for EVs right there.

Carbon footprint

Let me say up front that I’m no right-wing nut. The evidence is in: Climate change is real. Mankind is responsible. The rate of change of CO2 in the atmosphere is cause for tremendous concern.

If you use electricity from the grid to recharge your EV, the CO2 emitted varies from state to state. Fortunately, to crack this code, the Federal Government publishes a greenhouse gas inventory annually:

LOCATIONCO2 (equiv.) / kWh (kg)
WA (south-west interconnected)0.70

Source: National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting (Measurement) Amendment (Energy) Determination, 2017

Obviously, Tasmania is drowning in hydro electricity (when it’s not shipping in diesel to keep the lights on during a drought).

South Australia has a lot more renewables in the mix than average, and at the other end of the spectrum, Victoria’s ongoing reliance on brown coal is obvious.

EV electricity consumption

This is interesting. EVs from the Nissan Leaf and BMW i3 to the mighty Tesla Model S 100D share a common piece of DNA: They all use roughly the same amount of electrical energy to travel one kilometre.

VehicleRange (km)Battery (kWh)Consumption (kWh/km)
Nissan Leaf240400.167
BMW i3200330.165
Tesla Model S 100D5941000.168

The consistency here is the result, in part, of the battery being such a significant chunk of the EV’s overall mass.

Let’s call it 0.17 kilowatt-hours of electricity to travel one kilometre in an EV, ballpark. And bear in mind this is a tremendously generous assumption because it accepts the manufacturer’s claimed range on face value. Actual mileage may vary – downwards.

Inconvenient truth

The EV cult is really not going to like this. When you combine the data from the above two tables, the concept of a planet-saving fleet of EVs doesn’t exactly fall flat on its face. But it does take a massive hit.

If you plug your EV into the grid to recharge in Victoria, this is exactly the same as emitting 177 grams of CO2 for every kilometre you drive. That’s roughly equivalent to driving a 2.5-litre SKYACTIV Mazda CX-5 (Combined Cycle, according to Greenvehicleguide.gov.au).

If you move to NSW and repeat this recharging exercise using grid electricity, driving each kilometre in your EV emits 136 grams of CO2. That’s about the same as a 2.0-litre Mazda 3.

You can crunch these numbers endlessly, but a simple truth quickly emerges: EVs are no kind of environmental ‘solution’ until Australian state and territory governments clean up the grid. Until then, they’re just a (highly profitable) opportunity for rich consumers to virtue signal.

If you buy an EV today in Victoria and get a sparky to install a 20-amp circuit in your grid-connected garage, in terms of CO2 it’s going to be a dirtier option than driving a conventional small car. In most of the rest of Australia it’s going to be about equivalent to driving a small car on internal combustion power.

Common objections

Clairvoyantly, to derail your most common objections in the comments feed below:

People will say the Green Vehicle Guide is unrealistic in the context of real-world driving. I’d suggest we agree, furiously, but its data derives from the only standard we have. And it’s probably about as unrealistic as EV manufacturer range claims.

To be fair, inconveniently, I’d also suggest that this analysis also does not account for the higher environmental cost of EV manufacturing, which many reports ballpark at about 15 per cent higher, as a consequence of building the battery. (Source: Forbes.com)

EV evangelists will say that petrol needs to be extracted from the ground, refined and shipped. This is of course true, and there is an energy impost inherent in these operations. Crude oil costs about 42 cents per litre. Turning it into gasoline, shipping it and retailing it adds about $1.00 per litre – so obviously it’s not all that energy intensive.

(Compare this to the price of aluminium, which is truly a very energy intensive commodity to manufacture.)

And to be fair, coal must be mined and conveyed to the power station. So it’s not exactly as if electricity gets a free ride in terms of the energy cost of exploiting the raw materials.

The above analysis has at its baseline a comparison of the two alternatives at the point of combustion.

Going off the grid

Proper devotees of the EV cult will scream that one simply needs to recharge with renewable electricity and any grid-based analysis goes up in smoke. This is true – but recharging your EV with clean electricity in most of Australia is far from an economically rational option.

If you fit a 10kW solar array to your home, and you can arrange your life so that you plug your EV in for up to four hours per day in bright sunshine, you will pump up to 40 kilowatt-hours of green energy into your EV, achieving a CO2-free recharge.

The solar array will cost you about $10,000.

But if you work offsite and you need to recharge overnight, or if you just can’t guarantee it’s going to be sunny when you need it to be, you’ll need somewhere to store sufficient solar energy. And 40 kilowatt-hours is rather a lot of energy.

You’ll need three Tesla Powerwall 2s. They’re about $11,000 each, but if you fit three you’d probably get that down to $10k apiece.

That’s a one-off $40,000 investment for the array plus the storage, plus of course the (let’s call it) $30,000 premium you’d pay for the EV in the first place. (A modest BMW i3 is about $70k, and to be fair, most people would probably be happier driving a $40k Mazda3 SP25 Astina…)

All-up that’s either a pretty expensive way to liberate yourself from big oil, or a major hip-pocket commitment to the environment (well beyond the scope of ordinary people’s household budgets).

Let’s not forget that $70,000 is the approximate fuel cost of 31 years of average driving in Australia – and of course your i3 is not going to last nearly that long.

Going off the grid is a nice concept that simply is not even close to being economically rational, or accessible to ordinary consumers.

Greenest option

Brace for impact, EV nuts: You’re better of driving a Prius – 80 grams of CO2 per kilometre (Combined Cycle). That’s roughly half the grid-fired recharging CO2 impost of EV ownership in Victoria, and a ballpark 40 per cent reduction compared with using grid power to do the same job in an EV in NSW, the ACT and Queensland.

The facts: So inconvenient.

Aristotle once famously said that the aim of art was to represent not the outwards appearance of things, but their inward significance. I’d suggest that embracing an EV, today in Australia, is the exact opposite. It’s little more than well-intentioned virtue signalling.

Let the hate-mail begin…

MORE: All electric vehicle news coverage