For David Ritchie, installing three electric car chargers for customers at his winery was a “no-brainer”. With a powerful solar array and storage battery about to come online, visitors to Delatite Wines will soon be able to drive their EVs to the idyllic spot in regional Victoria and enjoy their sampling tour safe in the knowledge that they will be charging their car on free, clean energy for the return journey.
Ritchie is one of a growing number of business people pioneering a wave of eco-tourism based around the availability of EV chargers. Instead of enduring what could be a long wait for the Coalition government to join the green energy revolution, hotels, motels, Airbnb hosts and other hospitality operators like Ritchie are stepping up and delivering a micro EV charging network for Australia.
For the relatively small outlay of a few thousand dollars, Ritchie hopes that the chargers will put his winery at Mansfield on maps and apps such as Plugshare, used by EV drivers to navigate their way around the country.
“We had Tesla chargers but not that many people drive a Tesla because they’re expensive, so we decided to put chargers in that can be used by all types of cars,” says Ritchie, who produces around 12,000 bottles of red, white and sparkling wine a year.
“It’s a great service for people because there isn’t a charger for miles around, and it’s a way of drawing people in to the winery. It also costs next to nothing and we will give it for free. To me it’s a no-brainer.”
The chargers that Ritchie and businesses like his are choosing to install are AC, or alternate current chargers, which typically take a couple of hours to give vehicles a top-up. There are now almost 2,000 of them across Australia and, augmented by more than 350 of the much faster DC, or direct current, public chargers, they cater to the nation’s 20,000-plus fleet of EVs – almost half of which have been added in the past 12 months.
Although fast chargers can power up a battery in a matter of minutes, they are much more expensive to install – around $30,000 as opposed to $2,000 for the ACs. This makes the latter perfectly suited to a micro-economic model.
Russ Shepherd is the founder of EVolution, a Melbourne-based company that provides and installs chargers. The company has a fast-charging station in Oakley but it is a promotional tool rather than a money-maker, so the easiest commercial proposition is installing AC chargers in homes and businesses.
“We have a lot of interest in this at the moment,” he says. “The return on investment for public chargers is quite low, especially if places like shopping centres are offering free power.”
It is challenging for corporate investors to justify the cost of land and installation of a network of DC chargers, especially since the payment mechanisms in chargers is an expensive add-on cost. So it makes more sense to make them free, or with an honesty box.
“Drivers will go to a particular location with chargers over somewhere with no chargers,” Shepherd says. “We have lots of examples where hotels put chargers in and they get calls from drivers straight away wanting to check in. We’ve found it a relatively easy sell and it’s a very low-cost boost for local businesses and communities.”
But it’s not just small businesses that can benefit. Shepherd says EV owners quickly change their behaviour depending on where they can get a top-up.
For example, they have evidence from market research and from customer feedback that a Westfield in Woden in the ACT that is fitted with chargers is being favoured by EV drivers over another nearby Westfield at Belconnen. The other piece of evidence is that the Belconnen centre has been in touch with EVolution about having chargers installed so its customers can also shop, eat or watch a movie while their car charges.
Cameron Craig, digital marketing executive at Sydney-based charging company EVSE, has noticed the same pattern, hinting that while the rollout of fast-charging networks by Chargefox and the NRMA is very welcome, the future might be found closer to home.
“Malls are getting charging stations but they are not necessarily looking to make money. They want to attract wealthier customers because they are more likely to be EV drivers,” he says.
As for an Airbnb-style network where “plug hosts” could charge for top-ups, he thinks the economics make it unlikely.
“It’s definitely possible to set up your own home-based system but electricity is not so cheap that you can make much money from it,” Craig says. “It’s not commercially viable so you’ve got to look at five to 10 chargers and people won’t have that space. You’re only going to see that scale through council developments and apartment blocks.”
Rob Nicholls, associate professor at the University of New South Wales business school, says Australia is ripe for the micro-charging revolution. Even though the country has one of the lowest take-ups of EVs in the developed world and the industry lacks the kind of generous subsidies offered overseas, such as in the UK or Germany, Australian homes have the highest proportion of solar power in the world.
It’s then natural to move from solar power to having a battery, and then to find a use for that electricity.
“What’s the next thing?” Nicholls asks. “It’s to think about getting a battery to stabilise that solar and reduce costs”, which might in turn mean that people buy an EV to soak up that power.
Domestic storage batteries can come in at $10,000, and although new EVs are still relatively expensive, Shepherd says you can pick up secondhand ones for $20,000.
Back in Mansfield, Ritchie of Delatite Wines is looking forward to firing up his new solar network in mid-May. He hopes that it will soon be powering a stream of visiting EVs, while their owners enjoy a refurbished kitchen and cellar door that will also be running off the solar power. He also hopes that the farm’s vehicles will soon be solar-powered.
“We have two electric-powered ATVs [all-terrain vehicles] at the moment,” he says. “But as soon as we can get an electric tractor, we will get one. And as soon as I can get an electric ute, I will get one and get rid of my diesel one. With the customer chargers, it all fits with our brand and philosophy.”