Jul 1, 2024
Electric Avenue: July 1

On this week's electrification highlight reel, Contact Energy's new grid-scale battery project with Tesla, how the really big machine manufacturers are going electric, solar power reaches a big audience - and a big milestone - and a succinct summary of the efficiency of electric machines.

Store it and they will come

Electricity: it’s not how we’re using it, it’s when we’re using it. While New Zealand’s electricity system is highly renewable, we often need to burn coal and fire up the gas (or occasionally even ask everyone nicely not to use as much) just to get through the peak times. And that’s where batteries can play a role, whether distributed across lots of homes or at massive scale, so it’s exciting to hear the news that Contact has announced a $165 million battery project with Tesla next to the Glenbrook Steel Mill. 

We need more renewable generation to power all our new electric machines and projects like this help make the most of intermittent renewable resources like solar and wind so we can use it when we really need it. This will hopefully reduce and eventually remove the need to burn fossil fuels for electricity generation. Recent experience in California, which has invested heavily in grid scale batteries, shows how they can help to smooth the peaks.

But whether it helps reduce electricity costs for New Zealanders is another matter. It pays to remember Rewiring Aotearoa’s research that shows rooftop solar is by far the cheapest form of delivered electricity you can get because it doesn’t need to be transported. The price of household batteries also continues to drop and, as EV technology develops that allows you to use stored energy for things other than driving, you can basically buy a huge battery and get a free car.

Think big

A decade or so ago, electric vehicles were a rarity on the road. Now they’re everywhere. 

An electric bus was also something of a novelty a few years back, but Palmerston North now has more than 40 of them (and Islamabad just ordered another 160).

Some believed larger vehicles like buses and trucks would be reliant on hydrogen as batteries wouldn’t be big enough to cope. That may still be the case with some areas like aviation or shipping but they’ve basically been proven wrong on the roads as battery electric options have proliferated. 

So what about the really big machines? Turns out the same trend appears to happening in this space, too. 

This week The Washington Post wrote about those developments and the writer got to drive an EV that weighed 25,000kgs and dug giant holes.

“Off-road equipment, including excavators, bulldozers, cranes and tractors, creates about 3 percent of U.S. carbon emissions — roughly the same as the airline industry. Making these machines carbon-free would be almost as big a step toward halting climate change as taking all commercial planes out of the sky.”

Unlike cars, these machines don’t just need to move, they also need to do work, so it’s a harder challenge to solve, but “electric machines are slowly starting to show up at farms and construction sites”. 

“John Deere plans to sell more than 20 models of electric and hybrid construction equipment and tractors by 2026. Construction giants Caterpillar and Komatsu are developing electric excavators and wheel loaders. Volvo Construction Equipment, which made the excavator I was driving, sells seven electric models.”

Macraes Mine claims to have New Zealand's largest electric vehicle, and while most EVs are (thankfully) cordless, this one is plugged in, which removes the need for it to stop and charge.

On the farm, the Linttas Electric Company’s new semi-autonomous combine harvester was featured in The Guardian Australia as one of the upcoming innovations helping grain farmers shift away from diesel.

Everybody loves the sunshine

The Economist dedicated last week's coverstory (paywall) to solar power and the large feature explored "why the exponential growth of solar power will change the world".

Humans aren’t particularly good at predictions, and one of the graphs in the story shows that very clearly. 

Due to rapid cost reductions through economies of scale, the uptake of solar has far exceeded expectations. Those costs are continuing to drop and demand is rapidly increasing.

The same week this feature was released, around one fifth of all the planet’s electricity was generated by solar for one hour on June 21, up from 16% last year.

No sacrifice

In the Guardian story above, Prof. Ray Willis, managing director of Future Smart Strategies, says shifting to electric farm machinery is not just about cost savings and emissions reductions, it's also about redesigning the vehicle for the first time in 100 years. 

“If you make it electric, inevitably it turns out to be better, more durable, more reliable.” Most EV owners would agree that is the case.

And the webcomic XKCD illustrates this is in typically humorous fashion.

Read moreDownload the full proposal here

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