In recent weeks, the city of Vancouver and the province of Ontario have taken bold steps toward the electrification of Canadian automobiles. Ontario agreed to provide subsidies of up to $10,000 toward the purchase of electric vehicles, while Vancouver passed an ordinance mandating that 10 percent of parking spots in new condominiums be outfitted with electric vehicle charging stations.
Though neither law will ensure the success of plug-in cars in Canada, they show a genuine determination on the part of a coalition of city planners, lawmakers, businesses, and green car activists to lead the world in electric vehicle adoption. So far, at least from a policy standpoint, they’re getting results.
Five Percent By 2020
When Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty chose a Chevrolet factory as the site for the announcement that his province would be offering subsidies that could reduce the cost of a Chevy Volt by 25 percent, critics cried foul. Ontario owns approximately 3.9 percent of General Motors, and the incentives are timed to roughly coincide with the release of the Volt, so many accused McGuinty of “picking winners and losers” with green car technology.
The incentives provide $4,000 to $10,000 (depending on battery size) toward all electrics and plug-in hybrids purchased in Ontario, and though the Volt may be the primary early beneficiary, it will not be the last. Ontario officials would like the program to help make 5 percent of the vehicles on its roads electric by 2020. The vast majority of those vehicles will be purchased years after the first Chevy Volts arrive in dealerships.
“There is wide interest in electric plug-in vehicles by the Canadian population,” said Al Cormier, executive director of Electric Mobility Canada, in an interview with HybridCars.com. Electric Mobility has done market research on the issue and sees Ontario’s goals as reachable—provided that the government does its part. “Canadians are prepared to pay roughly 10 percent more than the conventional car for the advantages they will obtain from electrification,” said Cormier. But there are issues other than affordability standing in the way of electric cars.
If You Build it, They Will Come
For two and a half years, city planners in Vancouver have been working with green car advocates to find the right mix of policies to foster electric car use. Don Chandler, director of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association, was part of that discussion. “We looked at the need and said where do you need to charge? For those of us who drive electric vehicles already and have for some time, we charge at home.” Though many cities have toyed with pilot programs to provide public charging stations, Vancouver is focused on issues of basic home access.
“Public charging can begin to address a perception of range anxiety, but to be honest we think the focus in our city needs to be on creating charging for homes overnight,” wrote Brian Beck, project manager for the city’s Sustainability Group, in an email to HybridCars.com. “That’s why last year we were the first North American city to require EV charging infrastructure for new single family homes, and that’s why we followed this year to be the first to begin to change our local building codes for multi-family homes. Over half of the residents in Vancouver live in these multi-family homes.”
Without the capacity to charge at home, it would be difficult for a consumer to justify purchasing an electric vehicle. Chandler said that government subsidies to encourage the retrofitting of existing homes and condominiums is next on the agenda.
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Meanwhile, the federal government has been silent on electric vehicles while it waits for the results of a study it commissioned in partnership with Electric Mobility Canada and several businesses and universities. The Electric Vehicle Technology Roadmap, which is expected to be turned over to the government soon, will be a series of recommendations for Canada’s national EV policy.
The recommendations will cover everything from manufacturing and technological development incentives to infrastructure and training mechanics. “It’s coming along quite well,” said Cormier. “We’re quite hopeful that the government will get moving very quickly and announce major incentives, major research programs, and financial support for the industry.”
Working with utilities to upgrade the grid for high-voltage, fast-charging stations will be a central component of the Roadmap. These stations could be the difference between electric cars becoming a high-priced curiosity or a full-fledged transportation solution. “It’s not just copper wiring you have to pull,” said Chandler. “It’s the new transformer you have to install, the new panel, the new distribution center, it goes all the way back to the utility.”
The Politics of Charge
Like many countries, Canada’s diverse geography and population distribution make phasing out a technology as entrenched as the internal combustion engine more complicated than simply passing a few incentives or putting up a few charging stations. Different regions demand different solutions, and for many, gasoline may be the only real option for some time to come. As a result, Canada’s action on the issue has so far been mostly relegated to a series of municipal and provincial actions.
“Constitutionally, the provinces have a great deal of authority in terms of what types of vehicles they will allow,” said Cormier. In the past, this has lead some provinces to ban neighborhood electric vehicles, while others passed incentives to encourage them. ZENN, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of neighborhood electric vehicles, is based in Toronto.
Getting initiatives like Vancouver’s condo law passed required gaining confidence from city leaders and housing developers in the potential of electric vehicles as a long-term solution. “Creating infrastructure for vehicles that are not here yet in volume results in new building costs. In that respect there were some challenges to get their support,” said Beck. “It is helpful that our local government leaders understand our responsibility to build infrastructure for charging electric vehicles and we know we need to start to do that yesterday, because our buildings last for 80 years.”
At the national level, some doubt the willingness of the current government to take the necessary big steps. Though political necessity seems to have softened his stance, Prime Minister Stephen Harper once maintained that there was no link between climate change and carbon emissions. In 2002, Harper called the Kyoto Protocol a “socialist scheme” in a letter to supporters.
Though he questions the Prime Minister’s dedication to lowering emissions, Don Chandler credits the government with funding the Roadmap and seems generally hopeful about its prospects. “The existing government will probably follow along with it, but has not been a big initiator and not very supportive of environmental issues in general. The question is what they will do with the Roadmap. Do they sit on it, or do they actually take action?”