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Electric Vehicle Chargers: Hype and regulation will be the enemy of sensible market solutions

Interested in exploring the idea of Electric Vehicle charging bays in shopping centres? Yes, we’ve already got some – but could they be forced upon us (by legislation) in the future? One would think not, but then if there’s a backlash by EV purchasers because charging becomes difficult, who knows what ‘vote-seeking politicians’ might dream up? As the take-up of EVs increases, we should be mindful of the possible consequences. 

This article by Angus Nardi, Chief Executive, Shopping Centre Council of Australia (SCCA) is published in the latest edition of Shopping Centre News.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are increasingly becoming a hot political and policy topic, driven by several overarching claims, objectives and desired outcomes.

One could say that there is a lot of hype around it, including a heavy dose of earnest commentary. One recent media report observed that “governments are falling over themselves to encourage the uptake of EVs”.

According to data from the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, while petrol and diesel vehicles dominated new light vehicle sales (88%) in 2022 (the Toyota Hi-Lux was the highest selling model), electric vehicle sales (at 33,410, or 3.2% of sales – noting they were still out-sold by hybrid vehicles at 7.9%) reportedly grew on 2021 sales 94% (up from 17,243).

There are various predictions, both internationally and domestically, on the future growth and so-called tipping point of EV sales.

Across various ideas and thought bubbles in the policy debate, shopping centres rate a frequent mention, principally in relation to the provision of vehicle charging infrastructure (and particularly the provision of fast chargers) to ensure drivers have more charging options.

This is to address various issues, including so-called issues known as ‘range anxiety’ and ‘queue anxiety’, along with circumstances where EV owners are unable to install or access home-chargers (eg. due to a lack of off-street parking, or limitations within apartment blocks).

Range anxiety relates to a driver’s concern that their vehicle will not have sufficient charge or storage to reach a destination. Queue anxiety relates to a driver’s concern that when they get to a charging station, demand will greatly outstrip supply and there’ll be a substantial queue and waiting time.

The consumer advocacy group, Choice, has identified that ‘concerns about charging are the second most commonly selected barrier to purchasing an electric vehicle’.

A select case study of sorts arose during the recent Christmas holiday period, where media reports highlighted a large group of EV drivers all descending at the same time on the chargers at Park Beach Plaza shopping centre at Coffs Harbour.

One headline read: “Build it and they will come – but there were too many Teslas for the available charge ports at one coastal town overloaded on holiday traffic”.

Drivers were reportedly ‘fuming’, with waiting times of up to half-an-hour. Reports also suggested that some owners left their vehicle in the charging bay after it was fully charged, creating larger than necessary delays (one assumes they were shopping…)

Another media report noted that at a regional winery, some people were waiting ‘for a few hours’ to get a charge, with the report suggesting that ‘the line-up during the week between Christmas and New Year was not for wine tastings, but to access the winery’s electric vehicle chargers’.

With these examples in mind, it is worth noting that a visit to a service station during a peak holiday period, like a lot of venues at peak holiday periods (eg. airports, restaurants, shopping centres), can result in significant queues and waits.

Try refuelling up at Jindabyne during the snow season, or a popular roadside destination or popular coastal town during summer, and there can generally be a considerable waiting time.

On reading the policy ideas of several groups, one could pick up that there’s a belief that chargers need to be installed and available literally everywhere: home, work, shops, parks, hotels, and various road-side locations (the list goes on).

Some would like to see a government-imposed mandate that shopping centres should provide chargers and dedicated charging parking bays; and we’ve already seen an attempt by one government (where the logic could be described as being a blend of jumping on the bandwagon, the ‘vibe’ and flimsy).

This aligns with the saying we use internally that ‘someone always has a great idea to regulate someone else’.

Aside from poor policy and regulation, such an impost would be short-sighted and this is despite the fact that many shopping centre companies already have, or are presently rolling out EV chargers.

In other words, our industry is already ‘onto it’, driven by sensible consumer, market and community reasons. In policy terms, there is no ‘market failure’ to justify any heavy-handed regulation, no matter the amount of hype. This is particularly the case whereby several challenges remain, which can be incredibly local and centre-specific in their nature, such as energy infrastructure limitations and policy and regulatory burdens.

Shopping centres are ultimately the best-placed to understand their customers and community, and will continue rollout chargers accordingly, in line with the (to name a few) overall locational factors, car parking issues and their customer’s experience.

A key policy that is in train is the Federal Government’s current development of a national electric vehicle strategy, with an 18-page consultation paper publicly exhibited late last year. This formed part of a 2022 Federal election commitment.

The government has already progressed on other measures, including to legislate a fringe benefits tax exemption for certain electric vehicles (and plug-in hybrid vehicles). There’s also the Driving The Nation Fund, aimed to help build charge stations at an average of 150km intervals on major roads.

There are also broader debates such as possible future EV road user charges, including considering forecast declining revenue from the national fuel excise.

The Federal Government’s consultation paper generated more than 400 formal submissions, from all sorts of groups, which in our line of work is unheard of. There’s clearly a lot of interest and some quite interesting submissions.

The paper provides examples of ‘free car parking and charging’ and makes general reference to readiness for a ‘higher penetration of EV charging’.

Noting the development of a Federal strategy, it’s worth noting that the NSW Government has already developed its NSW Electric Vehicle Strategy, to make NSW “the easiest and most affordable place to buy and use an EV in Australia”. In addition, the Queensland Government developed a Zero Emission Vehicle Strategy in 2022. Victoria has a Zero Emissions Vehicle Roadmap. South Australia has an Electric Vehicle Action Plan. ACT has a Zero Emissions Vehicle Strategy. WA has an Electric Vehicle Strategy. Even the City of Sydney is now putting together an EV strategy; not to be outdone or miss any possible political credit.

There’s certainly no shortage of electric vehicle strategies, or the hype surrounding them.

One can ponder the amount of possible duplication of effort and resource across three-tiers of government going into the development EV strategies, particularly where parts of the respective strategies overlap (or even contradict) with each other.

In a policy sense, part of any duplication may be sensible, in that different governments have different levers to use (for example, the NSW Government is phasing out stamp duty for electric vehicle purchases – noting that this is a state-based tax; local councils can utilise their own community assets and land for chargers).

Other parts, however, simply gives rise to the risk of a hodgepodge of potential policy and regulatory measures. This is, of course, our predominant concern.

Experience tells us that hype and overlap is not the best mix in developing policy.

This becomes problematic whereby governments are trying to drive a rapid increase in the uptake of EVs (and using policy levers to do so), but may then try to impose obligations on others (eg. shopping centres) to address issues that may arise from such an uptake. This is, of course, worse if we are lumped with (as we often are) additional risks, capital and operational costs, and left to deal with other issues such as those relating to energy infrastructure or other regulatory burdens.

It’s obviously a political headache if people rush to buy electric vehicles, incentivised by government policy, but there’s inadequate charging infrastructure in place (whether real, perceived or desired).

For this reason, our key concern is that governments would seek to mandate that shopping centres – whether through new development or at existing centres – are either ‘EV ready’ or provide chargers of any kind or dedicated parking bays.

We’re concerned that hype and simplistic solutions will cloud sober and sensible policy development, including where some groups make comparisons to non-comparable countries to justify their position. We’re also concerned that it may be driven by a ‘build as many chargers anywhere where possible’ mentality.

We have already seen one attempt to impose a mandate on us (10% of new car parks provided) and, fortunately, it didn’t proceed. Like many regulations, the proposal was approached on an isolated basis, unaware of the weight of other regulations, let alone the role and function of our car parks and centres, or the characteristics of our customers.

In its submission to the Federal Government’s EV strategy consultation paper, the Productivity Commission noted (in our view, sensibly) that the “Government should only play a marginal role in EV charger provision”.

The Commission further stated: “In the same way that petrol stations are provided by the private sector in Australia, EV charging infrastructure will also be provided by the private sector.” Existing petrol stations have started to transition to EV charging, some cafés and retailers have also begun to provide EV chargers as a way of attracting customers, and paid car parking sites might also do the same.

On the issue of service stations, in my view an overlooked sector in the debate, the Australasian Convenience and Petroleum Marketers Association (ACPMA) has reported that service stations are ‘agnostic’ about the fuels they sell and are “keen to provide fast chargers”.

Australia has about 7,200 service stations according to ACPMA (translating to about five service stations for every shopping centre), dotted across metropolitan and regional areas and along major roads.

Service stations will clearly play a key role in the future provision of charging infrastructure.

We hope that the Federal Government will approach the development of its EV strategy in a sensible manner, and ultimately not seek to mandate anything on our industry or impose certain business models or technologies.

An overarching principle of the Government’s EV strategy should be to ensure a policy framework that enables sensible partnering with shopping centres, and helps improve the business case to install EV chargers if and where needed.

About the author

Angus Nardi

Angus Nardi

Angus Nardi is the Executive Director of the Shopping Centre Council of Australia (SCCA), the national industry advocacy group for major owners, managers and developers of shopping centres. The SCCA’s advocacy priorities include competition policy, retail tenancy legislation, land valuation and taxation, safety and security, energy policy and planning and development.

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