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Electric vehicle batteries have applications beyond the cars that carry them, advocates say

Electric vehicles (EV) aren’t geared for firefighting.

Key points:

  • Electric vehicles are increasingly being viewed as power sources
  • Winemaker James Tilbrook is currently investigating options for his cellar door
  • A recent survey of Adelaide drivers showed increased interest in EVs

But winemaker James Tilbrook says if he’d had access to one of today’s cutting-edge EVs back in December 2019, it might have helped when the Cudlee Creek bushfire ripped through the Adelaide Hills.

As he battled to protect his property, Mr Tilbrook tried to pump water from his dam to his tank, in an urgent attempt to feed his irrigation system.

“Because the power got cut off, we had no power to the pump of the dam,” he said.

“By not being able to get water into that tank, I wasn’t able to get it into the two valves that were closest to the fire front.”

Mr Tilbrook said an electric vehicle (EV) with power-sharing capability would have given him the option of simply driving to his pump and plugging it into the car’s battery.

Tilbrook Estate’s vineyard was blackened when the Cudlee Creek fire ripped through.(Supplied: Tilbrook Estate)

“We would have been able to distribute 35,000 liters per hour of water around the vineyard,” he said.

“If we’d had the right set-up, potentially I could see an electric vehicle car battery being able to run the pump.”

Using an EV in this way — as a mini, mobile power source — relies on a feature known as vehicle-to-load (V2L), which is built into several of the current generation of EVs.

But advocates have more ambitious aims in mind, including using car batteries to power homes.

What’s the cost and what’s the gain?

In the two-and-a-half years since fire destroyed Mr Tilbrook’s vineyard, his Tilbrook Estate winery has rebuilt and rebounded, and heavily relies on solar panels to power its cellar-door facility.

“At the moment, we’re sort of tossing up whether we get a battery,” Mr Tilbrook said.

“If we were able to do bi-directional charging, or power from an electric vehicle car battery, you’ve already got the power in the car.

“In an emergency, you could use it to power the cellar door so it could keep functioning during a power outage.”

‘Bi-directional charging’ is a concept that comes with its own vocabulary: V2G, or vehicle-to-grid, refers to an EV that can export energy to the grid.

V2H, or vehicle-to-home, refers to EVs that can be used to supply homes.

“We’re starting to see some trials now where the car powers [a] house,” RAA automotive policy senior manager Mark Borlace said.

“The battery in an EV is between three and five times the size of a general house battery, so the house and the car will be — from a power point of view — a combined unit.”

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.listsDuration: 3 minutes 21 seconds3m 21sPlay audio.  Duration: 3 minutes 21 secondsABC Radio Adelaide’s Sonya Feldhoff chats with automotive experts about the state of EV technology.Download 1.5MB

Australia is currently in the grip of high fuel and energy prices, so it might come as a little surprise that a recent survey of South Australian drivers recently found growing levels of enthusiasm for EVs.

“We surveyed 1,500 members again last month and we found that now, two out of every three are saying that ‘an electric vehicle will be in the consideration mix of the next car I get’,” Mr Borlace said.

“The major things motivating them are the increasing cost of fuel and greater awareness of the environment.”

Notwithstanding this, the up-front cost remains a deterrent.

“There are more electric vehicles coming onto the market and more choice, and with that choice there are lower-priced vehicles being introduced,” motoring journalist Toby Hagon told ABC Radio Adelaide’s Sonya Feldhoff.

“But they’re typically still 20 to 25 per cent more [in cost] than their comparable internal combustion engine vehicles.”

‘Starting to become a no-brainer’

If cost is an obstacle, so is obsolescence.

Technology is evolving at such a pace that some prospective buyers might be put off by the thought that the EVs of tomorrow will be significantly better than those of today.

“There are things like electric utes [that are] available globally that aren’t available here yet, so there’s a bit of work for Australia to do in the catching-up space,” Electric Vehicle Council chief executive Behyad Jafari said.

“You’ll certainly see more models coming at cheaper prices.

“Just a few years ago, electric vehicles would come to our market and they’d be priced at over $100,000. Now the newest ones … are around $40,000.”

Techno-skepticism has also perhaps acted as a roadblock of sorts.

The present doesn’t always live up to the past’s expectations of it, and history is littered with the debris of discarded futures — flying cars were once thought to be something that humans could look forward to.

The Jetsons waving from their flying car.Children’s television program The Jetsons depicted a world of flying cars.(supplies)

But, unlike flying cars, EVs don’t belong to the world of The Jetsons.

Mr Tilbrook might still be working through his options, but he is convinced widespread EV uptake is an inevitability.

“It’s starting to become a no-brainer,” he said.

“With this fuel or energy crisis at the moment, it’s going to make people sit up and think. It’s making me sit up and think.”

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