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In Mount Isa, electric cars drive the economy – but not the people

When you combine some of Australia’s roughest and most remote roads with lucrative mining wages, you can imagine the size of the cars that drive around Mount Isa.

Important points:

  • According to analyst Tim Treadgold, electric cars are behind a strong copper market, which is one of the main industries in northwest Queensland
  • Most locals use all-wheel drive and SUVs for rough roads and long journeys
  • One researcher says developing a network of chargers is key to making electric vehicles viable in remote areas

The serenity of the city is often negated by noisy diesel engines shifting through the gears with the sound of Mount Isa Mines in the background.

Ironically, a recent resurgence in the local economy is largely thanks to the burgeoning electric car industry, which is creating serious demand for copper.

But driving electric cars in this rough and remote part of the world seems a long way off.

“I’ve read a lot about them and seen them advertised, but I don’t really go into it and study what it’s about,” says Brian Bester, a Mount Isa resident.

Many Mount Isa people say they would drive an electric vehicle if it were possible to make long journeys. (

Getty: Ezequiel Becerra

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Best, who drives diesel all-wheel drive, says his vehicle suits his lifestyle with long drives and some off-road driving.

However, when the opportunity presented itself and the numbers added up, he was open to driving an electric car.

“When technology changes and it’s more economical and easier to use, I’ll change when technology changes,” he says.

“Copper is the new oil”

The majority of Mount Isa’s 18,000 residents are employed, either directly or indirectly, by Glencore’s Mount Isa Mines, which mine copper, zinc, lead and silver and have a copper and lead smelting facility.

Despite a crash at the start of COVID-19, the market for Mount Isa’s two main raw materials, copper and zinc, continues to grow stronger.

Resource analyst Tim Treadgold says with such great global interest in electric vehicles for the copper market, the pendulum has swung.

“Copper is used in absolutely everything. Without copper, we wouldn’t make phone calls, and without copper, half of the world’s buildings wouldn’t be operational,” says Treadgold.

“Now we are calling copper the new oil because it is used in electric vehicles.”

Mt Isa ChristmasAnalyst Tim Treadgold says investing in electric cars is fueling the copper market and operations like Mount Isa Mines. (

Delivered: Ben MacRae

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But the precious metal is getting harder and harder to find in the Mount Isa Mines. The mines are almost a century old and the copper content is decreasing.

Companies like Canada’s Copper Mountain hope to capitalize on the booming market. The Eva project north of Cloncurry is expected to employ around 280 people after construction.

According to Country Manager Roland Bartsch, the company is very interested in raising the funding for the Eva project this year.

“As the world is moving in the direction of electric cars, we want to be part of this development,” says Bartsch.

“We see ourselves as a crucial part of the progress towards a green economy.”

Is copper the new diesel?

Investing in electric cars is what drives a large part of the economy in northwest Queensland.

Many residents say they would drive them if they could handle long journeys efficiently and had enough strength to navigate the rough roads.

The electric mobility researcher Dr. Jake Whitehead of the University of Queensland believes that electric cars have the potential to meet the needs of motorists in remote areas.

“Electric motors have a very high torque, a lot of grunt and a lot of pulling power,” says Dr. Whitehead.

“We currently have one more challenge where the costs are high.”

Charging station for electric car.The electric mobility researcher Dr. Jake Whitehead says charging infrastructure is key to making electric cars suitable for remote areas. (

Facebook: Tiritum

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Long journeys are also a challenge for electric vehicles as charging stations are limited to the west of the Great Dividing Range. Electric vehicles have an average range of 300 to 400 kilometers before they need to be recharged.

According to Dr. Whitehead, upgrading the charging system is key to making long trips profitable.

“Based on a 15-minute break every two hours, an electric vehicle with a range of 350 kilometers could safely travel 700 to 800 kilometers according to the recommendations to reduce driver fatigue,” he says.

“It is also recommended not to drive for more than eight or nine hours, including 15-minute breaks, without a long rest, which would also be another option for a longer charge.

“Here it is of crucial importance for governments to support the expansion of the charging infrastructure at least every 100 kilometers in regional areas.”

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