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Electric vehicles summit shows need for new infrastructure

While electric vehicles are far from mainstream now, many more of us will be driving electric cars or riding on electrically charged buses in the coming decades. Ontario has a goal of having electric vehicles make up 5% of the vehicles on its...



While electric vehicles are far from mainstream now, many more of us will be driving electric cars or riding on electrically charged buses in the coming decades. Ontario has a goal of having electric vehicles make up 5% of the vehicles on its roads by 2020. British Columbia and Quebec are further along. In Vancouver a pilot study involving 70 public charging stations is underway, and Quebec Hydro already has 150 charging stations installed in 34 cities.

Not surprisingly, then, utility managers, electricity system companies, government policy makers, and power worker unions were in attendance at the 2nd Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Summit held by the Strategy Institute in downtown Toronto on February 5-6.

On the second day, Jim Burpee, president and chief executive office of the Canadian Electricity Association spoke about the infrastructure challenges that will arise as more of us will want to plug our cars into an electrical outlet as opposed to the gas pump.

Burpee himself drives an SUV hybrid, which he said is the “best car I’ve ever had,” and he said the family’s next second car will also be an electric vehicle because he likes their sprightly performance. On the other hand, it may be the extraordinarily cheaper cost of running an electric vehicle that will drive a mass consumer shift towards them and consequently drive the construction of new energy infrastructure. Burpee showed that for a 100 kilometre journey the cost to fill up a traditional gasoline-driven car is $11.50, compared to a cost of just $1.24 to charge an all-electric vehicle, and $2.76 for a hybrid vehicle.

It is the environmental benefit of electric vehicles, however, that is driving governments to promote their use. Right now, as Burpee pointed out, greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation industry in Canada are 31% higher than emissions from generating electricity. (In Quebec, with its clean hydropower generation, the gap is even wider: in 2009 transportation accounted for 43% of its GHG emissions, compared with only 1% for electricity generation.) Plugging your car into an electricity source, means plugging into a much greener power source, but as well, as Burpee pointed out, there’s the fact that electric motors are “vastly more efficient” than the internal combustion engine.

What hasn’t been assessed, however, is the impact on the electricity grid, said Burpee. If electric vehicles are adopted at a mass scale, there would have to be rules established as to who can charge when, and where. “All hell could break loose” if too many people are charging their cars at home at the same time. Frequent power failures would of course affect reliability —  no power; no vehicle; no way to get to work.

Already we have an ageing electricity grid and ageing power stations, which altogether will need approximately $295 billion in upgrades over the next 20 years, said Burpee. Engineering companies will no doubt be involved in much of this work.

The widescale adoption of electric cars will place an extra burden on the system. One of his slides showed an Environics study in Vancouver that shows that home electric vehicle charging will happen in geographic clusters, and residential peak power usage in some areas will be up by 155%.

Burpee said that the utilities need to be involved in setting the policies, he said, and we must get the policies right otherwise once the demand is there, the roll out of the infrastructure will be challenging.

Malcolm Shield with the City of Vancouver’s Sustainability Group followed Burpee and spoke about the city’s pilot study which is installing 70 public charging stations. The city hopes to draw up a long term strategy for providing the charging station infrastructure from this study and is currently looking at tying in stations with cell phone towers, as telecom companies also need to expand their networks.  The other types of locations for stations are malls, libraries and community centres.

Shield pointed out that Vancouver is a relatively dense city so the issue of electric car running range is not a problem, and B.C. has the advantage of clean hydro-power that makes up 93% of its supply.  With its own building code, Vancouver has mandated that all new buildings must supply 20% of their parking spaces with charging units.


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