Electric ute

Pioneer EV electric ute

Missed this earlier in the week. A Christchurch couple have bought an electric ute to commute to Lincoln with. It is a Pioneer EV (sold in America as a Zap Xebra PK if you want to search for more info on it). Click here for an excellent review of this vehicle in America.

I had a look at these vehicles a year ago, and they do look interesting. The reviews seem to indicate they are cheap and nasty, but do the job, depending on what the job is you want them to do of course.

They will find it frustrating commuting to Lincoln in, as it has a top speed of 65kmh, not that great for in the country. But it would be ok in the city, and in the States some people use them round the farm (only on dry soil of course!).

It is classified as a motorcycle, so technically the driver should probably be wearing a helmet, which he isn’t in the picture. Ridiculous really considering the design of the vehicle, but something to keep in mind.

Now I am a fan of electric vehicles. I think they are a great way of saving money. I don’t have one myself yet, but I do have an excellent rechargeable electric lawnmower so am slowly weaning myself off expensive petrol! An electric vehicle is part of the long-term plan, unfortunately in the country they aren’t that practical.

Electric vehicles are old technology. They first entered production in the 1880s (some experimental ones were made before that date), and were very popular in the 1900s. The advantage at the time was that you didn’t have to crank-start them, but as internal combustion engines improved these started to take over, and the invention of the electric starter motor killed the electric car. At the time they only had lead-acid batteries, so electric vehicles could only be short-range city vehicles, while petrol vehicles could be refueled and driven any distance. This is the same problem today, but now fuel prices are higher and longer-range batteries have been developed, so the picture is changing.

In a city, electric vehicles are a great idea. They are cheap to run. When stopped at the lights they use no electricity, so are very efficient. They produce no emissions within the city (only at power stations away from the city) so reduce smog. Electric motors are powerful (if you get one big enough), as they have maximum torque at zero RPM, so if you have a decent sized one it would be great on hills and for towing. I have seen a few electric tractors on the internet that are apparently very powerful (look at the custom conversions at this link), and this is of course why our trains are diesel-electric. Having said that the ute in this article is apparently very underpowered going by the reviews. Most electric vehicles still use lead-acid batteries and are short-range but that doesn’t usually matter in town. Mitsubishi will soon be bringing out a longer-range vehicle, which Meridian will be testing.

Note that electric vehicles are very different to hybrids, which are a complete waste of money in my opinion.

There are two major problems with electric vehicles. Firstly, if lots of people buy them, we will need more electricity generation. Some of this may have to come from coal and gas if we can’t get enough reliable renewable electricity.

Availability is also a big problem. I am glad to see that this couple were able to import one. You can go to a dealer and buy an electric scooter, or electric lawnmower. You can also convert your own car to electricity. But until you can go to a dealer and buy an electric car, the technology will never take off.

We can never replace our car fleet completely with electric vehicles. But they may have a valuable role in the years to come within cities.

Biofuel Act

The Biofuel Act was passed by parliament last week, despite heavy criticism by Dr Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. This Act sets mandatory levels of biofuel in petrol and diesel, and was passed despite governments overseas halting plans to pass similar legislation because of environmental concerns. The two main problems with the legislation are:

  • Biofuels may not actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • There are environmental and social issues around the production of biofuels, where crops may take land away from food crops or from rainforest.

Both of these issues are addressed in the Act (Section 34GA) in an amendment the Greens have made a big deal about, but they are not addressed directly. Rather, the “Minister must recommend Order in Council … providing qualifying biofuels must be sustainable biofuels”. This basically means that the Act does not define how biofuels will be determined to be sustainable, leaving this up to the Minister to sort out at a later date – despite this being the primary objection to the policy.

To guide the Minister in this, some Principles are outlined. Principle 3 (biodiversity and land with high conservation value) is reasonably logical. Principle 1 states:

Principle 1: Less greenhouse gas

Sustainable biofuels emit significantly less greenhouse gas over their life cycle than obligation engine fuel. In relation to this principle, the Order in Council must— …
(b) specify minimum levels of no less than 35% greenhouse gas emission reductions for qualifying biofuels in comparison to obligation engine fuel.

Just to show what environmental effect we can expect from this, if you replaced all fuel in NZ with a 2.5% biofuel blend, the biofuel having 35% less GHG emissions to standard fuel, then you would reduce NZ transport emissions by 0.875%. A completely insignificant amount.

Principle 2 states:

Principle 2: Food production

Sustainable biofuels do not compete with food production and are not grown on land of high value for food production. Without limitation, the following biofuels do not contravene this principle:
(a) byproducts of food production described in the Order in Council:
(b) ethanol from sugarcane grown in circumstances and in areas described in the Order in Council:
(c) rotational oilseed crops grown not more than 12 months in any 24-month period on the same land or as otherwise specified in the Order in Council.

In other words, in order to be sustainable a biofuel must not compete with food production. But ethanol from sugarcane and rotational oilseed crops, both of which in many cases will directly compete with food production, are specifically allowed.

So what “unsustainable biofuels” are ruled out? Pretty well nothing. We have no idea. The Minister can declare anything to be sustainable, if they can declare rotational oilseed doesn’t compete with food production they can claim anything.

Worse, this legislation has actually reduced the amount of sustainable biofuel we can expect to use. Argent Energy has halted plans to spend over $100 million on a biodiesel plant that would have produced biodiesel from tallow and waste cooking oil – about the most sustainable biofuel that you can get, as this is recycling of waste products.

Dickon Posnett, managing director of Argent Energy’s NZ subsidiary, says New Zealand’s proposed legislation in the Biofuels Bill makes the playing field too uneven.

“Ethanol gets a government-backed subsidy, through relief from excise duty, that amounts to 42c a litre,” he says. “Oil companies are being incentivised to import ethanol. That makes it utterly uneconomic to invest in the domestic biodiesel plant we were proposing to build.

“New Zealand needs to stop talking about its need to add value to its resources and actually do it. Much of its tallow resource is likely to go offshore and be converted to biodiesel which will get sold back here at a much higher price. It is tantamount to selling frozen lamb or beef carcasses and letting the importers overseas make the real margins by selling the juicy cuts.”

“Biodiesel production technology using tallow is proven now and the cost of making it in New Zealand would be more than competitive – if we had a level playing field,” he says.

So efficient, sustainable, locally produced biofuel (that would probably have been produced with no biofuel legislation) is halted and inefficiently produced, unsustainable, foreign biofuel is promoted instead. In this case the environment would have been far better off in a free market with no controls on fuel composition, which shows how pointless this Act is.

This is a classic example of ridiculous legislation that does not conform to the basic principles of The Family Party environmental policy: “Environmental policy needs to be factually sound, practical, affordable, measurable and actually help our environment”. It makes no practical sense, and would have little if any environmental benefit.

If elected we will be opposing such policy.