EV charging: Power games and current resistance

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Here on the Flat Chat website, the issue of electric vehicle charging has been one of the most-read and most-commented topics we have had of late.

Personal stories on the Forum have ranged from prospective purchasers of new apartments being told, no, you can’t have EV charging, to tenants being told they can just plug in a meter to calculate how much they should pay the scheme for using its electricity.

So, with apologies to readers whose batteries are flat from all this charging chat, here is an expanded version of my recent Australian Financial Review column (and I hope the electricians among you appreciate the punny headline).

One of the more surprising issues as we recover from the various fires and floods of summer is not the growth in interest in electric vehicles (EVs) but the occasionally bitter resistance to strata residents having one and being able to charge it up.

Resistance is not new.  Is it only three years ago that all sorts of anti-EV nonsense was being spouted to deter voting for political parties that supported renewables?

Remember the ever lovable Michaela Cash warning tradies that Labor was coming to take their utes away, only for manufacturers to announce they already had electric versions on the market.

Remember the Prime Minister (Scott Morrison) telling us that Labor wanted to “steal your weekend” by forcing you to purchase vehicles that couldn’t pull a boat or a caravan?

He obviously hadn’t heard about the GM electric Hummer that can go from 0 to 100 kph in six seconds.  According to motoring experts, the only area in which electric utes don’t outperform their diesel equivalents is range and that’s only due to the spread of charging stations not matching the interest in the vehicles.

Which brings us back to being able to charge up in your own block. Right now there are little more than 21,000 electric cars on Australian roads compared to upwards of 600,000 apartment blocks (if not more), so any use of the word “pressure” in terms of providing charging facilities must be taken with a pinch of salt.

That said, given that apartment residents tend to live near public transport and travel less far when they do drive, EVs are the perfect “runabouts” to sit in the garage, idly powering up.

But then you get down to the nitty-gritty of strata politics and those ideas fall as flat as old batteries in a rusty radio.

Our podcast co-host Sue Williams wrote recently about a Sydney doctor who had to sell his electric car after his strata committee refused to let him charge it overnight, even though he offered to pay for the electricity.

When that story ran in the Sydney Morning Herald, it sparked responses of both dismay from renewables supporters and vitriolic abuse from anti-EV readers.

Part of the problem is that while some apartment blocks could easily cope with one or two residents “trickle” charging overnight on off-peak electricity, they would be unable to handle a surge in demand for multiple vehicles without upgrading their infrastructure.

We should be so lucky as to see such a ballooning of demand, you might think.  But for anxiety prone strata committee members, allowing one owner to charge their car would open the floodgates (even if there is currently barely a trickle of demand).

Those who have studied this in detail report that allowing high-speed charging to be installed by individuals is obviously cheaper than cabling your whole carpark but ultimately more expensive if you carry out a more comprehensive installation later.

Sadly, that anticipated future waste is being used to prevent anyone from plugging in and charging up now.  Even in NSW where strata law specifies EV charging as one of the common property changes that doesn’t require special by-laws – instead it is a Special Sustainability Resolution which only requires a 50 per cent approval rather than 75 per cent – strata committees are dragging their heels.

They and their strata managers seem to be reading state laws and by-laws as if they were the entrails of sacrificial chickens, looking for reasons to say no.

Meanwhile, landlords and potential sellers should note that real estate agents say inquiries about EV charging in apartment blocks, even from people who don’t have electric cars, are up there with questions about broadband speeds.

And there are some fairly reliable predictions, too.  EVs are already getting cheaper. Renewable electricity will become more reliable and probably cheaper too.  Petrol prices will be subject to global politics and fossil fuels are becoming morally less acceptable.

But help is on the way. Cutting through the exhaust fumes of rumour, misinformation and genuine technical challenges, the NSW Department of Energy and Climate Change is planning a free webinar on EV charging in strata schemes next month.

The information will be based on NSW laws but many of the principles will be universal. 

And perhaps the best way forward for all strata schemes is to work out how many peak and off-peak chargers their systems could currently cope with and what they plan to do if and when the limit is reached.

There’s a fairly lively discussion about the pros and cons of installing EV charging, and exactly how that should be done, here in the Forum.

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