NSW: While the NSW government’s electric vehicle fleet upgrade has been broadly welcomed, upgrading hundreds of government properties with charging infrastructure is proving to be a headache. 

Earlier this year the NSW government announced, as part of a nation-leading EV plan, that it will transition its passenger fleet of around 12,000 vehicles to electric by 2030, with the interim goal of 50 per cent by 2026. 

A key benefit of the plan is using government purchasing power to bring a range of cheaper EV models into the state, giving manufacturers confidence to enter Australia, and opening up the second hand buyers market.

However, getting the vehicles themselves may be the easy part.

The government also has to ensure chargers are there to power them across hundreds of government owned-and leased properties, while considering how that will impact the broader roll out across Australia as well. 

The upcoming 2022 version of the National Construction Code will aim to include provisions ensuring all buildings are geared to accommodate the future installation of on-site electric vehicle chargers, however, the change may come too late to benefit NSW. 

A senior government source told The Fifth Estate government-owned buildings were on average around 50 years old, and in the case of leased assets would involve negotiating with landlords to conduct significant infrastructure upgrades. 

“In our own buildings at least if the government commits and provides funding we can do more things much more easily. But with the leased buildings, working with all the property industry landlords and negotiating all these things, it’s not that easy,” the source said.

The first challenge involves where the additional energy supply for thousands of cars is going to come from in terms of the electricity grid, and then how the car charging infrastructure interacts with the building itself. 

“If you think about any building that has 100 car spaces, if all of them are electric the amount of infrastructure upgrades like main switchboard and substation improvements and capacity will increase phenomenally,” they said.

“There’s so many things to look at, I don’t think the broader industry and especially the building industry as a whole has thought about all these implications.”

In the case of some regional property assets, the power required for vehicle charging is set to be more than the building’s energy consumption in total.

Although these types of buildings may be comparatively easier to transition as they have capacity for rooftop solar and battery storage, compared to CBD offices with 500 underground parking spaces and no room for solar. 

Close to 50 NSW government buildings have already undergone solar upgrades, with around 20 of those set to receive battery systems as well. 

On the positive side, EVs can act as additional battery storage, using bi-directional charging infrastructure to provide baseload power to the building and even interact with the wholesale market to generate more revenue.

Will the government pay a premium for vehicle charging?

How electricity is charged by landlords for the powering of EVs is a brand new hurdle that requires reworking of lease agreements and changes to metering equipment. 

“Typical outgoings that the landlords charge to tenants, historically never included these sort of technologies,” they said.

“So there’s some changes to how the leases should work, what the service provision requirements are for a standard building and what would be considered by the Property Council of Australia as a standard service offered by landlords in office buildings, or other buildings.”

Electricity contracts will have to be managed to avoid substantial increases in cost stemming from the much higher, and more rapid, demand.

“The demand profile for that sort of charging infrastructure is quite different to building infrastructure and there’s a big difference between ongoing usage versus an instantaneous load on the grid,” they said.

Managing rapid demand at the individual building level can be handled in various ways, with most charging infrastructure these days including in built energy management systems capable of automatically reducing usage to avoid surges 

UNSW PhD candidate Katelyn Purnell explained, “you might have five cars plugged in at one time, using seven kilowatts each so it might limit that. It might throttle each car down to only charge at say four kilowatts.” 

Being a laggard has its advantages when the rubber meets the road

Ms Purnell, whose research thesis explores EVs and electricity grid modelling and planning, said NSW was an important part of the picture in terms of guiding the transition over the coming decade. 

As a “laggard” in the case of that transition, Ms Purnell said Australia has the opportunity to look at what is occurring overseas to guide its own path.

“We’re such a laggard in the world in terms of EV adoption and one good thing out of that is that everyone else has figured it out,” Ms Purnell said. 

In 2020 less than one per cent of new cars bought in Australia were EVs, compared with more than four per cent globally, close to six per cent in China and 75 per cent in Norway.

Ms Purnell said the question of which vehicles to go with would likely come down to the preference of those in charge of procurement, with no glaring differences in quality between the major car manufacturers. 

“The thing that they’re probably interested in is looking for the best battery capacity. So how far you can drive to the cost, and I think that’s gonna have better value on the second hand market as well,” Ms Purnell said. 

She added that in general the technology had now come far enough that it was not likely to be very quickly surpassed as was the case when EVs first appeared. 

She said the same applied to charging infrastructure which in the early days saw different charging options being championed in different areas before generally agreed on standards emerged. 

The generally slower, AC charging plugs had the choice of Type 1 and Type 2, with Europe adopting the latter as has Australia. Faster DC chargers also have two types, CHAdeMO and CCS Combo, and while Australia is generally heading down the road of CCS, NRMA’s EV charging infrastructure in NSW supports both types. 

“The government could go down that route, and I imagine they probably would,” Ms Purnell said. 

However still, with the emergence of wireless charging, new areas are opening up yet again and with that plenty of potential for heading down the wrong road, at great time and expense to the taxpayer. 

“If we invest now, in these types of plug-based charging infrastructure and as soon as we do all these no-plugin chargers become available at the same cost, your technology already becomes obsolete,” the source said.

“Because with the plug in chargers there’s a static design barrier and they’ll have a certain amount of charging capacity, whereas with the wireless charger you can possibly upgrade the charger capacity and speed.”

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