An electric car glides by on a busy street, drawing attention not for its novelty, but for how smooth and silent it is.

Soon, the streets of Dunedin will be just a little quieter – and less harmful to the environment. The local government of this New Zealand city hopes to own 20 fully electric vehicles by 2021. “We’ve got an aim as a council to get to 30-40% of our vehicle fleet being electric in the next year or two,” Mayor Dave Cull tells GovInsider.

The city of 125,000 has also been actively encouraging the installation of public electric vehicle chargers – which will lead to a “greater uptake” of electric vehicles across the city in general, he adds.

GovInsider caught up with Cull to learn more about Dunedin’s efforts to be friendlier to the environment, beginning with sustainable transport.

The city goes electric

Dunedin’s electric dreams are part of a broader goal by the central government to double the number of electric vehicles in New Zealand every year to reach 64,000 by 2021. The city council now has a policy of buying electric vehicles, and currently owns two hybrid vehicles and an electric bike.

Over the last two years, the council has also built an “extensive” cycleway network throughout the city that “addresses some of the aims of our environment strategy, transportation strategy, and social wellbeing strategy”, Cull says.

New Zealand is “fortunate” in that 80% of electricity production within the country comes from renewable resources, he continues, “but where we see quite a lot of potential is particularly in transportation energy; that’s where electric vehicles come into it”.

The council is therefore focusing on using alternatives such as wood-based energy instead of fossil fuels for transport, which is currently costing the city millions of dollars.

In fact, Dunedin City Council was “the first in the country” to take investments out of fossil fuel exploration and production, according to Cull. In 2014, the council voted for an ethical investment policy that stated that it will not invest in munitions, tobacco, and fossil fuel extraction industries, for instance.

“We’ve been quite conscious of the need to address our climate change mitigation obligations,” says Cull. And over the next few years, the city will continue to explore “what the opportunities are to use more efficient, safer and less carbon-intensive technologies”, including autonomous vehicles and electric bicycles.

“We’ve been quite conscious of the need to address our climate change mitigation obligations.”

Citizens’ say

Importantly, the people of Dunedin have played a key role in shaping policies around sustainability. They have asked for more cycle ways and mountain biking paths for years, Cull says. “To some extent, the citizens lead the way.”

What’s more, Cull points out, it was at the community’s request that the council hold a consultation on the ethical investment policy. “They came back and said, ‘We want you to take fossil fuel exploration out of your investment portfolio’,” he says.

When developing the city’s environment strategy for the next few years, Dunedin City Council partnered with local indigenous people of the area, Cull adds, “because clearly they had a prior interest and ownership”.

This relationship with the citizens is a constant one. The council holds monthly meetings so that they have a say in annual or long-term plans, says Cull.

Tackling climate change

Like many other cities around the world, Dunedin is feeling the effects of climate change. Groundwater levels are up, and there is a predicted increase of severe rain events – meaning an increased flooding risk, says Cull.

To prepare for this, another main priority for the city over the next few years is to upgrade its ageing stormwork drainage system, and install real-time sensors to detect drain blockage.

Interestingly, the council is getting some good out of its emissions situation. The city landfill is responsible for “a good amount of emissions”, says Cull, and the council is working on collecting methane gas from it and using the gas to generate electricity. “We see the energy plan as an economic development initiative,” he explains.

Despite the uncertainty that climate change brings, looking ahead, Cull is optimistic about the next ten years. “I’d like to see a very outward-looking, environmentally-conscious city,” he proclaims.

Dunedin is the oldest city in New Zealand, but has its feet firmly planted in the 21st century. As the city presses on with its environmental strategy and sustainable transport efforts, its streets may soon be filled with the sound of the future – a silent, electric purr.

Image by Mr ThinktankCC BY 2.0