How to jump-start Canada’s electric vehicle infrastructure

Consumers and auto-makers are picking electric vehicles in growing numbers. To get the economic and environmental benefit, we need to invest

 
Electric Chevrolet Volts charging at a dealership

Electric Chevrolet Volts charging at a dealership. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty)

A decade ago, there were only a couple thousand electric vehicles (EVs) on the road worldwide. Last year, they cruised past a million—and kept going. But that’s nothing compared with what’s to come.

China, for one, plans to add as many EVs next year as exist in the entire world today. And considering that transportation represents more than half of all oil use in the world, the type of vehicles we’re driving will have a huge impact on that industry. According to the International Energy Agency, reducing pollution to levels consistent with limiting climate change to less than two degrees would see 715 million EVs cruising the streets in 2040—which would also shrink global oil demand by 20% relative to today.

These numbers are worth keeping in mind when considering not just the environmental impact of recently approved pipeline projects—but also whether or not they’re even good long-term investments. EVs are the future, and in a global economy, being left in the past is never a good thing. Given that infrastructure investments are made with decades in mind, which is the better bet: oil infrastructure or EV infrastructure?

So far, Canada has taken a scattershot approach to building charging infrastructure and deploying more EVs, one led primarily by provinces. That’s left ample room to grow: in 2015, just under 7,000 Canadians bought an EV. That’s a healthy 32% jump from the year before, but still just 0.4% of all new vehicles sold across the country.

Contrast that with the situation in Sweden, Denmark, France, China and the U.K., where EVs have already surpassed the one per cent mark for market share. And then there’s Norway and the Netherlands, which saw market share reach 23% and 10%, respectively.

Despite their relative novelty here at home, Teslas, Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs are turning up on roads, in neighbours’ driveways and at mall charging stations. And beyond the cachet and gas-saving factors that draw drivers in, there are good reasons for governments to nudge Canadians into choosing electric.

Transportation emits nearly a quarter of Canada’s carbon, meaning EVs are a potentially big climate solution. They produce no tailpipe pollution and, in most provinces, drivers plug in to relatively clean power grids.

With its crippling air pollution, China recognized these benefits early on, overtaking the U.S. last year for total new EV sales. In 2015, a record US$325 billion was invested in renewable energy globally, and just over one third of it was invested in China. Beyond using this clean electricity to power homes, offices and manufacturing plants, the Chinese also view it as the fuel of choice for the growing number of vehicles hitting the road, setting a goal of putting five million “new energy” vehicles (EVs, plug-in hybrids and fuel-cell cars) on the road by 2020.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance has forecast that global sales of EVs could hit 41 million by 2040, representing just over one in three new light-duty vehicle sales. Is this achievable? It’s a stretch, but recent trends suggest it’s possible.

For starters, the cost of an electric car battery—the most expensive component—dropped 35% last year alone. And these costs will keep dropping. As a result, Bloomberg researchers expect unsubsidized EVs to be comparable in price to their gasoline competitors within six years.

Meanwhile, battery density has increased, extending the distance a battery-powered vehicle can travel on each charge. That’s allowed manufacturers to launch more affordable EVs that can travel farther, like the Chevy Bolt, which can travel 383 kilometres on a single charge.

Half a decade ago, few Canadians had ever even seen an electric car. Now, a majority of Canadians think EVs will outnumber gas-powered cars within 10 to 20 years, according to a 2016 poll from Abacus Data. And drivers will soon have more options to choose from, as the world’s major auto manufacturers plan to roll out dozens of new electric models over the next decade.

Still, “range anxiety”—the fear of getting stranded with a dead battery—is the number-one worry for people considering an EV (despite the fact that 80% of Canadians drive 50 kilometres or less each day). In the U.S., the federal government has announced a sweeping plan to fund EV charging stations every 50 miles over 25,000 miles of American highways, spanning 35 states.

As part of a climate and clean growth plan, the Canadian government needs to do the same and invest in EV fast-charging stations along highways throughout the country. Fast chargers along key transportation corridors will put prospective buyers’ minds at ease and boost the odds that their next vehicle is electric.

Getting barriers off the road to EV adoption will help clear the way for clean economic growth and a more competitive Canada in the global market. After all, while pipelines may fuel many of the cars on the road today, the future is a one-way street—and there’s no question which direction it’s headed.

Merran Smith is Executive Director and Dan Woynillowicz is Policy Director of Clean Energy Canada (@cleanenergycan), an initiative of the Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University.


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