Print this page

Published: 25 October 2010

Powering up

Graeme O’Neill

Electric cars are gaining traction. In Germany, for example, the car industry is working with government to get a million electric cars onto the roads by 2020 – that’s one in four new cars sold in 2020. But there are other opportunities – and challenges – emerging for Australia, reports Graeme O’Neill.

Accessing the ‘fuel tank’ on the CSIRO plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.
Credit: CSIRO

Ross Blade, founder of Victorian electric vehicle maker Blade Electron Victoria (BEV) says it has been ‘a long, tough road’ to build up his electric vehicle company.

From its factory in the old gold-mining city of Castlemaine, BEV is preparing to scale up production from around 30 new Electron vehicles a year, to 50 and, eventually, 370.

All 30 Electrons built to date were based on new Hyundai Getz hatchbacks imported from South Korea, but production is about to shift to the Getz’s successor, the i20. The company’s Australian-made electric motor, drive train, batteries, and battery-management system, fit straight into the i20.

BEV suffered a recent setback when the Australian Government decided to lease 40 new Japanese Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric vehicles (EVs) for the Commonwealth car fleet, at $1740 per month each. The Electron MkIV was excluded from consideration, despite being some $800 cheaper to lease. It did not qualify as a mass-produced vehicle, and did not yet meet the Commonwealth’s EV program guidelines.

How does a home-grown Australia company become a mass producer? Through contracts to supply government fleets. But to qualify, it must be a mass producer –Catch-22.

In its Getz incarnation, the Electron met Australian design regulations, and Ross Blade asserts the new model’s technical superiority over the i-MiEV. He designed it to provide a genuine 100 km per charge at normal stop-start driving speeds ‘with a few hills thrown in’.

Blade rejects the description ‘conversion company’, pointing out that BEV manufactures brand new vehicles, from a single model. It replaces the original Hyundai petrol engine and drive train with a new Australian electric motor, drive train, battery pack and battery management system. The original, new petrol engines will be sold as power sources for off-grid generation.

‘We’ve gone beyond what one would regard as a conversion,’ Blade says. ‘By the end of the year, 50 per cent of our vehicles will consist of original components manufactured in Australia, and will account for 75 per cent of the cars’ $53 000 value.’

The new Hyundai i20-based Electron has yet to be certified crashworthy although, as it is basically a next-generation Getz, which has already passed Australian crash tests, there should be no problem.

Blade says buyers prepared to spend $53 000 on a new Electron EV are typically ‘middle-upper income career people with a conscience, who see themselves as seeding a new industry’.

Dr Phillip Paevere, a program leader with CSIRO’s Energy Transformed Flagship, says large numbers of EVs on Australia’s roads will create options for a more efficient power grid.

Paevere heads CSIRO’s Electric Driveway project, which aims to integrate electric vehicles into household power systems, where they can act as a distributed system for storing off-peak power from the national grid.

Through its Electric Driveway and plug-in hybrid electric vehicle project, CSIRO has been investigating how plug in vehicles could be used as part of a domestic distributed energy system.
Credit: CSIRO

A perennial problem for coal-fired power stations is that demand for energy during the day greatly exceeds overnight demand. Paevere’s team is developing algorithms for intelligent household energy-management systems that would allow an electric vehicle to be charged at off-peak rates overnight. After a day’s commuting, the system would enable the car to discharge residual energy into the household system to run appliances and lighting during the evening high-demand period.

‘It would benefit energy providers to have extra storage capacity, because it allows load-levelling, and the constant full charging and discharging doesn’t wear out the vehicle’s batteries any faster,’ says Paevere.

Developing the Electronic Driveway, he adds, involves ‘a whole lot of unknowns’. Power utilities would need new business models to ensure customers share the savings from postponing investment in new power-generating infrastructure. And households with electric vehicles would need incentives to commit to sustainable charging behaviour.

Paevere says the popular concept of electric vehicles pulling into a charging station for a 5-minute refill holds little appeal for power utilities, because thousands of electric vehicles pulling a quick 25 kilowatts per hour (kW/h) ‘fill’ off the power grid on the way to or from work, will only exacerbate the problem of managing grid load.

Recent research – including an EV trial run by the Victorian Government as part of the Electric Driveway study – shows most drivers commute less than 100 km per day, so the EV’s 100 km range should be more than adequate. In future, the average two-car family could have an EV commuter, and a long-haul petrol- or diesel-electric hybrid.

The Blade Electron – Australian ingenuity competing with imports.
Credit: Blade Electron Victoria

Paevere says his team is looking at the opportunities, and developing prototypes of the necessary hardware for the Electric Driveway, that they would develop in partnership with private companies.

‘The issue of where to keep the system’s “smarts” will be a bit of a battleground – vehicle manufacturers, and companies like Google, Microsoft and Cisco, are contending to host the system’s intelligence and telecommunications.

‘We’re hardware-agnostic in CSIRO. Persuading people to move to EV transportation and adopt the required charging behaviour will require incentives, and it’s government’s role to ensure a range of models is offered. But all the players agree that, if we foster widespread uptake, everyone will share the benefits.’

Cost, and the misplaced expectation that EVs will perform like petrol cars will impede adoption, but Paevere expects demand for petrol-to-electric conversions to decline as more manufacturers, including smaller companies with no history of making conventional vehicles, enter the EV market.

Kristian Handberg, manager of Victoria’s EV project, says the project’s aim is to make Victoria an ‘EV-friendly place’.

‘It’s a test bed for assessing user performance and experience of different technological solutions. It provides all participants with a safe, low-cost operating environment to test out different models.’

The trial involves several hybrid-electric buses, plug-in light commercial EVs, and a ‘limited representation’ of plug-in hybrids. Handberg says the aim is to identify barriers to efficient function, test solutions, and guide an efficient and safe rollout of the EV market in Victoria.

‘Victoria has extremely competitive electricity prices, so it lends itself to an EV market, but the state’s reliance on brown coal comes with a significant emission profile,’ Handberg says.

‘Whatever the mix, if owners source energy from the grid, the emissions benefit will be debatable. It will only be with the reduction of carbon emissions from the stationary engine sector that the benefits will become undeniable.’

The Australian Government has decided to lease 40 new Japanese Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric cars for the Commonwealth car fleet.
Credit: Mitsubishi

Rhys Freeman, Green Technology Manager for the Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies (CERES) in the inner Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, describes the EV market in Australia and the US as ‘very healthy’.

In the US, all sales of Nissan’s entry in the electric stakes – the LEAF (Leading Environmentally friendly Affordable Family car) – were reserved before production began. The LEAF will come to Australia in 2012.

Freeman says new technologies are easing lingering concerns about EVs, such as their short range, short battery life and inconveniently long charging times.

Embodied energy – the energy invested in making the vehicles and their batteries –influences the choice between a new EV and a conversion. Freeman says conversion is usually a cheaper option for commercial vehicles because few commercial EVs are available, and owners prefer to choose a vehicle that suits their needs. Conversion costs range from $10 000 to $50 000, with the choice of vehicle.

But people usually convert to save the environment, not money, says Freeman, as converting cars to electric will reduce the requirement for making new EVs and prevent millions of cars going to landfill.

More information

CSIRO Electric Driveway project,
Blade Electric Vehicles,

Published: 25 October 2010

Atlas to put ‘citizen apps’ on the menu

How can we better integrate data from the many disparate citizen science1 groups around the country to improve the nation’s biodiversity monitoring and research efforts? Coordinators at the Atlas of Living Australia project have been spending time with members of community environmental groups to identify the most effective features for a citizen scientists’ online ‘toolkit’.

Schoolchildren learn how to use the Biodiversity Snapshots application for mobile devices.
Schoolchildren learn how to use the Biodiversity Snapshots application for mobile devices.
Credit: Museum of Victoria

The rapid development of web, map and mobile-based applications in recent years is making it easier for non-scientists to get access to scientific information and to record observations in the field – sometimes for later scientific use.

For example, Museum Victoria has just launched Biodiversity Snapshots, a new mobile application designed to help Year 3–10 school students and their teachers learn more about native wildlife.

The application includes a field guide with photos and sounds of each animal, and a way to record and upload observations on a mobile phone, netbook or tablet. When a student accesses Biodiversity Snapshots on a mobile device, the application presents information such as the animal’s name, shape, features, distribution, behaviour, habitat, sounds, status and ecology. It also lets students survey species found in school grounds, backyards, urban parks, bushland or coastal environments.

Biodiversity Snapshots is a collaboration between Museum Victoria, the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, the Atlas of Living Australia and Earthwatch.

Gaia Resources, the consultancy that designed Biodiversity Snapshots, is also developing tools for citizen science groups to collect, organise and edit their data online through the Atlas of Living Australia website (see ECOS 153, p 24). The design process was kicked off earlier this year, with a series of workshops in which members of citizen science groups identified desirable features for an online toolkit. Not surprisingly, ‘easy to use’, ‘portable/mobile’, ‘fast’ and ‘free’ were at the top of their wish lists.

Harnessing the power of people

The combination of citizen science and new technology has produced some interesting projects. Recently, Einstein@home, an online citizen science astronomy project, described what are believed to be the first pulsars discovered through public participation. More than 250?000 volunteers helped Einstein@home to discover more than 100 potential pulsars.

Another international astronomy project, Galaxy Zoo, invited volunteers to judge from images whether galaxies were elliptical or spiral; and, if spiral, whether they were rotating in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction.

By mid-2007, 80?000 volunteers had already classified more than 10 million images of galaxies. The final Galaxy Zoo datasets contain more than 34.6 million clicks by 82?931 volunteers: a demonstration of the power that citizen science can harness. According to a member of the Galaxy Zoo team, it would have taken researchers years to process the photographs without the volunteers.

Two other unusual initiatives are National Geographic’s archaeology project ‘Field Expedition: Mongolia’, and the San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council’s ‘ParkScan’ website.

Volunteers in Field Expedition: Mongolia tag potential archaeological dig sites on GeoEye satellite images to assist explorers on the ground in Mongolia (see

The ParkScan website allows San Franciscans to monitor the condition of city parks and submit park observations directly to City staff (see

The first beta public release of the Atlas of Living Australia website – which has been referred to as a biodiversity ‘yellow pages’– has been scheduled for late October 2010. The website will give researchers and the wider community access to Australian plant, animal and microorganism species’ names, photos, lists and distribution maps, mapping and identification tools, occurrence records, online literature, natural history collections and herbaria, and ecological, observational, and molecular data.

With data from museums, universities, CSIRO, herbaria and other biological collections linked together within a single web environment, users will be able to explore and analyse the information in new ways to develop a more detailed picture of Australia’s biodiversity.

Can you name this gecko, or this tree? The Atlas of Living Australia will provide open access to data such as species names, distribution maps, and mapping and identification tools for reliable identification.
Can you name this gecko, or this tree? The Atlas of Living Australia will provide open access to data such as species names, distribution maps, and mapping and identification tools for reliable identification.
Credit: David McClenaghan

‘The Atlas aims to enable any user to quickly locate and access information across the Internet on all aspects of Australian biodiversity,’ says the Director of the Atlas of Living Australia, Mr Donald Hobern.

For example, users will be able to use the Atlas’ mapping and spatial analysis tools to create a species list for a given area, or map the known occurrence for a species.

The Atlas – which is coordinated by CSIRO – will also give users open access to 50 years of archival material from the Australian Journal of Zoology (a contribution from CSIRO Publishing, which publishes ECOS).

From twitchers to storm chasers

People often ask whether citizen scientists contribute to ‘real’ science. With the right support and coordination, the answer is ‘yes’.

In 2009, for example, the North American Audubon Society analysed 40 years of data from its annual bird count, revealing dramatic shifts northward for winter bird populations as a result of warmer winters. This year's count will help scientists understand the impact of the Gulf oil spill on vulnerable species.

In this country, Birds Australia coordinated a continent-wide survey of birds from 1998–2002, in which thousands of members of the public participated – equipped with binoculars, field guides, GPS units and notebooks. These efforts culminated in the 2003 New Atlas of Australian Birds, presenting 4000 distribution maps for more than 650 bird species, including seasonal changes and breeding range.

Currently, more than 7000 volunteers continue to build Birds Australia’s database of seven million records of birds – the largest biological database in Australia, and one of the largest in the world. Apart from being used by qualified scientists in research projects, the data contributes to Australia’s ‘State of the Environment’ reporting.

Birdwatchers are among the oldest communities of ‘citizen scientists’.
Birdwatchers are among the oldest communities of ‘citizen scientists’.
Credit: Rosemary McArthur.

Perhaps the best-known citizen science program in Australia has been the national network of more than 6000 volunteer ‘weather watchers’ coordinated by the Bureau of Meteorology. The volunteers record rainfall, spot storms, and observe river heights and conditions at sea for the Bureau’s weather databases.

Today, members of the public can join any number of citizen science groups, such as ClimateWatch, Frogwatch, Toadbusters, Waterwatch, Operation Spider, Seagrass Watch, Coastcare, Greening Australia, Carnaby's Black-Cockatoo Recovery Project, Conservation Volunteers, Shorebirds 2020 and the Threatened Bird Network.

Of course, an effective citizen science project requires effective volunteer training, technical support, data collection, coordination and encouragement. While data quality can be an issue, innovative tools for ensuring high-quality data are starting to come online. Data collected by volunteers may also need peer review or expert validation.

More information

Atlas of Living Australia,

1 Citizen science is the current term for what used to be called ‘amateur science’ or ‘natural history’.

ECOS Archive

Welcome to the ECOS Archive site which brings together 40 years of sustainability articles from 1974-2014.

For more recent ECOS articles visit the blog. You can also sign up to the email alert or RSS feed