Hunter plugs in to electric future

When Jon Eggenhuizen was a teenager his father told him if he bought a motorcycle it would be broken before he could ride it.

But young Jon wouldn’t be stopped.

Gaining his motorcycle licence at the age of 18 was the catalyst for a lifelong love-affair with the two-wheeled vehicles that has led him to build one of the fastest and most innovative electric motorcycles in the country.

When H2 Review visited Eggenhuizen in the Cardiff South shed he rents from his neighbour he was tinkering away with the bright yellow Catavolt, which has won the past two seasons of the TTXGP Australian series and will be flown to the upcoming TTXGP World Series Final to be held at the Daytona International Raceway in Florida, US, from October 19.

The father of five is hoping to secure sponsorship from Hunter businesses to pay for his and rider Jason Morris’s flights.

‘‘It’s hard to explain, it’s like watching one of your children,’’ Eggenhuizen said. ‘‘You get so stressed and worried when you get them out there, but seeing something you built perform so well is a dream come true.’’

Eggenhuizen, who formerly worked for an electric motors company and later electrical engineering firm NHP, built the motorcycle in January 2011 in the hope of setting a 200-mile land speed record.

His earlier model set a record for its class of 110miles (or 170km/h) in 2010 at the salt flats at Lake Gardiner, South Australia.

The latest model has a hub motor inside the rear wheel, which allows the use of a larger and cheaper lithium battery pack that takes up more space in the engine bay.

The six-kilowatt hour battery can take the rider about 150kilometres before they need to stop and charge the battery, which takes about three hours and costs about $1.20.

‘‘There’s no longer any servicing required; it services itself every time you plug it in,’’ Eggenhuizen said. ‘‘It’s not as hard on the tyres because there’s no transmission and it’s easier to ride because there are no gears. You just accelerate and brake.’’

Eggenhuizen established his his own  business, Catavolt Pty Ltd, at the start of this year and is building a fire-engine-red motorcycle for a doctor who plans to charge the battery with energy produced by his solar panels.

He hopes to sell 25 of his electric motorcycles each year.

‘‘Until now I never thought I could make a living out of it; until now there wasn’t enough interest,’’ he said.

Entrepreneurial enthusiasm for electric vehicles is at an all-time high and Eggenhuizen is not the only Hunter resident making his mark in the burgeoning industry.

The Hunter Valley Electric Vehicle Festival last month was organised by the University of Newcastle’s Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment and included the unveiling of Holden’s long-range electric car, the Volt, and the NRMA’s first electric roadside assistance car.

There was also a display that included American-made full-electric Tesla Roadsters and a three-wheeled electric car called the Roadie from Ballina-based Hughes Engineering.

But some of the most impressive innovations were from home-grown businesses, including a  $200,000 evR450 supercar from Newcastle company Varley, a 1980s DeLorean sports coupe that Newcastle’s Solar Power Australia converted to run on electric energy, a new Oscar train built by UGL  at Broadmeadow and a ferry from Solarsailor, which has recently teamed up with Forgacs.

Festival organiser Gary Ellem said the event was more than a show and tell session. It also brought government, industry and developers together to discuss whether the Hunter had the potential to establish itself as a centre of electric vehicle industry innovation and manufacturing – and if so, what needed to be done to lay the foundations of future business and industry growth.

Following the closure of the BHP Newcastle steelworks in 1999, the Pasminco lead smelter at Boolaroo in 2001 and Norwegian company Norsk Hydro’s Kurri Kurri smelter this year, could electrical vehicles represent a new manufacturing and employment stream for the region?

Ellem believes so.

There was already a lot of will around positioning the Hunter as a clean technology centre, he said, and the relocation of the CSIRO Energy Centre and establishment of the Newcastle Institute of Energy and Resources had already attracted research and development to the region.

‘‘What we don’t have is a commercialisation plan for companies, so what we’re trying to do is build on our areas of strength that we already have good capacity in manufacturing and work out how to expand that.’’

Ellem said the region’s most obvious and significant strength was that it already was  involved in building much of the NSW public transport infrastructure.

UGL  and Downer EDI manufacture the state’s trains, with some overseas components; Volgren at Raymond Terrace has built buses for the state fleet and Solarsailor has  partnered with Forgacs in its production of ferries that run on electricity.

‘‘The idea that we’ll suddenly have a mass scale passenger car manufacturing facility in the Hunter or NSW; we’ve kind of missed the boat on that one,’’ he said.

‘‘So what we’ve been trying to do is redefine the concept of electric vehicles in people’s brains to match the stuff we do actually build and that we can maintain a bit of an advantage in. That’s in the industrial public vehicle sector, so around the big sort of heavy things you don’t necessarily build in large numbers but you need a fair bit of technology and engineering to fulfil.

‘‘It’s also the necessary electricity infrastructure that goes with that; controlled systems and overhead wires and substations and that kind of thing.’’

But to successfully move from manufacturing petrol-powered public transport to electricity-powered public transport, there needs to be consistent demand from customers – that is, the state government – for the new vehicles.

The institute is developing a response to the NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan, urging a move away from diesel, gas and oil, and a strategic push towards the electrification of the public transport network for reasons that include improving health and reducing noise pollution.

‘‘What we’re trying to do is create a market pull and that will help companies coming up with that technology development to land in this location,’’ Ellem said.

‘‘If we don’t create that market pull they’re not going to land here.’’

Ellem argues this isn’t protectionism but more about streamlining state government planning, with the aim of giving manufacturers certainty and the confidence to build capability to meet demand.

‘‘It’s about understanding that as new technologies come on board, you can assist in the commercialisation of those by having a way of strategically purchasing prototypes early on, doing trial runs, scaling up and helping our industry step over those barriers to commercialisation and production,’’ he said.

Ellem said the institute’s response to the masterplan would also encourage the creation of a manufacturing capability plan that would go some way in avoiding the current pattern of mass orders of vehicles followed by long periods of inactivity.

‘‘That’s a very ineffective use of the capital infrastructure in the Hunter which makes our own manufacturing sector less competitive,’’ he said.

‘‘So it sounds like vehicle manufacturing here is really expensive when it wasn’t expensive, just you ordered in a way that didn’t actually match our capacity particularly well.

‘‘So if you order them in a better way you can have more consistency and then keep a higher local content division.’’

Aside from the public transport system, Ellem said the Hunter also made sense as an epicentre for electric vehicle manufacturing because of its proximity to the coalmines, where electric machines were already being used underground.

The industry also represented a large market for battery-powered machines.

Ellem said smaller businesses including Catavolt that operated on a more entrepreneurial, boutique level would also reap the benefits of an enhanced community skillset.

Newcastle state MP Tim Owen said  the region needed to diversify its economy and was in favour of moving towards electric vehicle manufacturing.

He said he was keen to support developers and manufacturers experiment with new technology and to help companies in their infancy.

‘‘Let’s put a toe in the water and work with the people developing these to help them here and then when we can say if it doesn’t look like there’s an opportunity for a fully fledged industry then we look at some economic assistance [through government grants] for those companies.’’

Owen has made a strong appeal to NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian to consider the Solarsailor as an option for future acquisition of ferries across the state, where it is appropriate to have an electric capability.

But some manufacturers are refusing to wait for external direction.

Newcastle company Varley manufactures its range of about 20 material handling electric vehicles – used largely in the aviation industry – in Brisbane.

But electric vehicles manager Nik Tyson said expansion of the range into more complex products would bring some of the manufacturing to Newcastle.

‘‘There’s lots of technical skill in Newcastle, lots of good tradespeople and engineers,’’ he said.

Tyson said the company was also planning to establish a Newcastle base to manufacture passenger electric vehicles.

Its lauded evR450 supercar was a prototype that was used to develop motor and control systems.

‘‘The plan is to build them for customer order and we’re in the final stages of verifying that product with vehicle testing on performance and range.’’

It is expected to be launched to market early next year.

Varley is also developing an electric motorcycle to compete with the Catavolt and is investigating the concept of an electric bus.

‘‘The key is infrastructure that can support electric vehicles, charging stations and suitable fast charging stations,’’ Tyson said.

Eggenhuizen may have his sights set on Daytona International Raceway, but he would like Catavolt to stay in the Hunter as it enters what he predicts will be a period of great change.

‘‘There’s so much support in the Hunter to run a business like this so it makes sense to do it here,’’ he said. ‘‘The engineering capabilities in this area for support and machines is world class, I guess those are the benefits of having a big mining sector.

‘I think this could be a real hub for electric vehicles when the coal runs out.

‘‘We’re definitely going to light the way in the Hunter and hopefully I can create some jobs too.’’

Catavolt inventor Jon Eggenhuizen with his bike.

Catavolt inventor Jon Eggenhuizen with his bike.

Varley's evR450 supercar

Varley's evR450 supercar