No Cars Go

Driv­ers are ready for elec­tric ve­hi­cles. Too bad our roads aren’t

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Cam Sylvester

In may, my wife, Jeanne, and I pre­pared to at­tend an aca­demic con­fer­ence in Cal­gary. There was, how­ever, one prob­lem: our daugh­ter had fled Van­cou­ver’s high rents for Squamish and ab­sconded with the fam­ily Jeep, leav­ing us with our Kia Soul elec­tric ve­hi­cle (EV) and its pal­try 150-kilo­me­tre range.

Jeanne con­sulted mem­bers of Bri­tish Columbia’s on­line EV com­mu­nity, all of whom in­sisted we wouldn’t make it through the Selkirk Moun­tains: there are no charg­ing sta­tions be­tween the towns of Revel­stoke and Golden, a dis­tance of 148 kilo­me­tres — mostly up­hill. Jeanne sug­gested that we rent a car for the jour­ney.

I was hav­ing none of it. Christina Bu of the Nor­we­gian Elec­tric Ve­hi­cle As­so­ci­a­tion had re­cently pre­dicted that the auto in­dus­try is on the verge of a “par­a­digm shift,” af­ter which elec­tric cars will be­come “so tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced” that they will out­per­form gaso­line and diesel cars. EVS like my Soul were poised to con­quer the world. What was a mere hop across the pro­vin­cial bor­der?

The cur­rent re­al­ity of EV own­er­ship, how­ever, soon made it­self known: we did make it through the moun­tains, only to be­come stuck near a trailer park out­side of Golden, where, af­ter plug­ging in our Soul, we waited for four hours un­til our ve­hi­cle had charged. Mean­while, an end­less line of our gas-guz­zling coun­ter­parts whizzed past.

In the­ory, one can travel across Canada in an EV. It would just take an in­cred­i­bly long time. Charg­ing sta­tions are of­ten clumped around ur­ban ar­eas. Most of them are also slow.

There are three types of EV charg­ers. Level 1s, which plug into any stan­dard out­lets, can re­fill our Soul’s bat­tery in a day. Level 2s, which are of­ten hard-wired into home and of­fice garages, can charge a Soul in about four hours. Then there are Level 3s. These fast charg­ers can fill up my bat­tery to 85 per­cent in thirty min­utes and are vi­tal for long road trips — you can charge in the time it takes to grab a cof­fee and stretch your legs.

Level 3 charg­ers are, how­ever, in­cred­i­bly rare. Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters fur­ther, there are two types of Level 3s: CHADEMO and CCS (think Beta vs. VHS). EVS are com­pat­i­ble with one or the other, but not both. (Tesla has its own charger, but it doesn’t work with any other EV.) Across Canada, there are ap­prox­i­mately 225 of each Level 3 type, most of which are found in and around Toronto and Mon­treal. Ac­cord­ing to the app Charge­hub, which maps ex­ist­ing charg­ing sta­tions, there is only one Level 3 charger be­tween New Liskeard, On­tario, and Cran­brook, BC — a dis­tance of nearly 3,200 kilo­me­tres. (It’s in Win­nipeg.)

EV tech­nol­ogy may be here — Volvo an­nounced that, af­ter 2019, none of its new cars will fea­ture com­bus­tion-only en­gines — but the in­fra­struc­ture to sup­port it is not. The Lib­eral govern­ment has made head­lines for its plan to is­sue “Green Bonds,” which will, in part, fund charg­ing sta­tions. And dur­ing the pre­vi­ous elec­tion, the party pledged to “rapidly ex­pand” the govern­ment’s fleet of EVS — Jim Carr, the min­is­ter of nat­u­ral re­sources, even said he would swap his own Chrysler 300 for a plug-in. But de­spite these lofty procla­ma­tions, the Lib­er­als have yet to an­swer one fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: What would a na­tional EV strat­egy look like?

In their at­tempts to nudge EV adop­tion along, some pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments cre­ated pur­chas­ing in­cen­tives, which, at the time, looked like smart pol­icy. On­tario, for ex­am­ple, of­fered re­bates of up to $14,000 start­ing in 2010— EVS, though,

ac­counted for barely one half of 1 per­cent of all ve­hi­cles sold there in 2016.

Ac­cord­ing to Shan­jun Li, pro­fes­sor of ap­plied eco­nom­ics and man­age­ment at Cor­nell Univer­sity, pur­chas­ing in­cen­tives are in­ef­fec­tive. Many early adopters who take ad­van­tage of tax cred­its are ei­ther rich or mo­ti­vated by en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns. Ei­ther way, they are go­ing to buy an EV, in­cen­tive or not. Li says that what keeps re­luc­tant buy­ers away is range anx­i­ety — the fear that an EV’S bat­tery will run out be­fore the des­ti­na­tion is reached — and a lack of ac­cess to fast charg­ers.

Both of these con­cerns are, how­ever, fix­able. If the govern­ment were to shock the sys­tem by build­ing EV charg­ing cor­ri­dors, or part­ner with the pri­vate sec­tor to do so, it would un­leash what Li calls “in­di­rect net­work ef­fects.” In short, the de­ci­sion by one charg­ing-sta­tion in­vestor to part­ner with the govern­ment would spur other in­vestors to do the same. A sim­i­lar phe­nom­e­non oc­curs with buy­ers: when peo­ple see more EVS on the road or mak­ing use of fast charg­ers, they’re more likely to be­come con­vinced of EVS’ prac­ti­cal­ity and make the switch them­selves. Li es­ti­mates that if the United States govern­ment had directed $924 mil­lion into build­ing charg­ing sta­tions, in­stead of spend­ing the amount on tax breaks for buy­ers from 2011 un­til 2013, nearly three times as many EVS would have been sold dur­ing that pe­riod.

Co­in­ci­den­tally, in 2012, tiny Es­to­nia did pre­cisely what Li and his col­leagues are now rec­om­mend­ing. The govern­ment there part­nered with the pri­vate sec­tor to cre­ate a coun­try­wide sys­tem of fast charg­ers ev­ery fifty kilo­me­tres or so. In fe­bru­ary 2013, the sys­tem was used 1,000 times. Three years later, the charg­ers were be­ing em­ployed 11,000 times per month.

At first blush, it ap­pears Ot­tawa is tak­ing the hint. In 2016, Min­is­ter Jim Carr an­nounced a two-year pro­gram ear­mark­ing $16.4 mil­lion to in­duce the pri­vate sec­tor to sprin­kle charg­ing sta­tions across the coun­try. Then, in the 2017 bud­get, the Lib­eral govern­ment al­lo­cated an ad­di­tional $120 mil­lion in a pro­gram to sup­port al­ter­na­tive re­fu­elling sta­tions — how many of those sta­tions will sup­port fast charg­ers has yet to be de­ter­mined. (There’s also word that a na­tional strat­egy to in­crease zero-emis­sion ve­hi­cles will be re­leased in 2018.) Paula Vieira, who over­sees the pro­gram, says that eighty new Level 3 charg­ers will be in­stalled by March 2018. More than half of the forty sta­tions that have been an­nounced so far will be placed in the Toronto area.

The de­tails given to date won’t make cross- coun­try road trips much eas­ier. Level 3s come with a price tag of up to $100,000, and Canada’s na­tional high­way sys­tem alone sprawls over 38,021 kilo­me­tres. Erect­ing one sta­tion ev­ery fifty kilo­me­tres along the high­way, as Es­to­nia has done, would mean cre­at­ing nearly 800 units, cost­ing as much as $80 mil­lion. And that would be do­ing the bare min­i­mum — an­gling for photo ops rather than of­fer­ing a vi­able so­lu­tion for a coun­try full of EV driv­ers. As a com­par­i­son, there are about 12,000 gas sta­tions in Canada, each with mul­ti­ple pumps. If a sim­i­lar charg­ing sys­tem were to be cre­ated, the price tag could jump to $2 or $3 bil­lion.

Un­til this level of in­vest­ment is made, elec­tric cars will re­main toys for rich com­muters and the eco-con­scious. This fact be­came ev­i­dent when, in 2016, Carr’s plan to get an EV was scrapped. It seems that of­fi­cials con­cluded there were just not enough charg­ing sta­tions in Ot­tawa for it to be a prac­ti­cal choice.

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