B.C. laying groundwork for electric car surge with charging stations
But is the province getting ahead of existing niche demand?
By Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun
February 1, 2013 4:31 PM
A ‘level-two’ charger converts electricity from a home to power up the battery for a Nissan Leaf.
Photograph by: NICK PROCAYLO Nick Procaylo , Vancouver Sun
Paul Bernard bought one of the first Leafs, Nissan’s purely electric car, in British Columbia.
He loves his Leaf. He even started a blog about life with an electric car.
The vehicle, which can go more than 100 kilometres on a full charge, gets the Chilliwack high school teacher to work at Sardis Secondary, and allows his wife and him to shop in the Fraser Valley area. The car loses no power when four people pile in to go to dinner, says Bernard.
“This car has been great for us. We use it every day.”
The only catch has been that if Bernard wanted to go on a longer trip in B.C., for example to Vancouver, it meant he had to plan to stay overnight, or find a way to charge the car for six to eight hours at a so-called “Level-two charging station.”
That’s about to change.
The B.C. government announced in January it will spend $1.3 million to install 13 fast-charging electric stations in the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, and at Merritt in the Interior. The new stations, which charge a car in just 30 minutes, are scheduled to be in place by March 31.
The location of the first fast-charging station will be at the Telus World of Science on False Creek in Vancouver.
Other locations include Whistler, Squamish, Surrey, Langley Township, two locations on the North Shore, Hope, Merritt, Nanaimo, Duncan and Saanich. The 13th location has yet to be decided.
The fast-charging stations also will connect B.C. to the West Coast Green Highway, a 2,200-kilometre corridor that stretches from the Canadian border, through Washington, Oregon and California, and ends at the U.S. border with Mexico.
Owners will eventually be able to drive from Whistler to Mexico in their electric vehicles.
The B.C. fast-charging stations — with a total of 30 planned — will be added to another 454 “level-two” charging stations throughout the province. The province is also helping the City of Vancouver finance 67 additional level-two charging stations. (These stations are lower-voltage chargers that take longer to power up a vehicle.)
But is it overkill?
With nearly 600 charging stations planned, that is double the number of actual electric cars insured in British Columbia today.
And the number of planned stations doesn’t include dozens of existing level-two charging stations in the Lower Mainland — including at locations such as Home Depot, Mountain Equipment Co-op and Nissan dealerships.
Compare the 2:1 ratio of charging stations per electric car to the approximately 2,000 gasoline-powered cars for every conventual gas station in the province. And consider that each gas station normally has several pumps.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg problem,” says Gordon Price, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program. “Do I need the charging ‘chicken’ before I’m prepared to buy the vehicle ‘egg?’ It’s tough.”
Price believes there is still so much convenience in the gas engine it will take bigger issues, such as a decline in access to cheap energy, to push fundamental change. Oil and gas are still relatively cheap, he notes.
“When the change comes, it will be brutal and sudden because we are not prepared to make the incremental change or we haven’t found a way to do it,” said Price.
John Axsen, a professor with SFU’s energy and materials research group, says there is little chance that electric car use will grow rapidly — even as technology improves, price comes down, and charging infrastructure is built.“If we don’t have proper environmental policies in place — whether it’s strong enough carbon taxes or vehicle emission standards, or other measures to move us toward a true low-carbon society — (electric cars) won’t get beyond that very small niche market of enthusiasts,” said Axsen.
According to ICBC, there were 193 fully electric vehicles owned in British Columbia in 2012, only 90 of those by individuals. The province says 335 electric cars have been sold in B.C. That compares with more than three million gas-powered vehicles registered in the province.
BC Hydro forecasts there will be 100,000 electric vehicles in the province by 2022. But that figure includes hybrids, of which there were nearly 24,000 in 2012, according to ICBC.
That forecast — considering the small number of electric cars on the road now — seems ambitious.
Bernard, a self-proclaimed electric car enthusiast, is convinced it is just a matter of time before electric cars become the transportation mode of choice in B.C.
He was not daunted by the $42,000 price tag for his Nissan Leaf (which he leases), even as he acknowledged he could get a gasoline-fuelled car for a much lower price.
He has installed a $799 level-two charger (with a $500 provincial rebate) at his home.
He plugs in overnight, and estimates it costs him $35 a month for the electricity to run the car. That compares with $300 a month he would pay for gas.
The electric engine also requires less maintenance, he said.
Bernard has already driven his Nissan Leaf to Washington state, and utilized the fast-charging stations located there, allowing him to charge up in 30 minutes, shop and return the same day. He believes acceptance will increase when longer-range batteries are created and vehicle costs come down.
“It’s like all the new technology — it’s like the first high-definition TV, the first fast computer out there — it takes time for people to move toward them. I think it’s just a lack of knowledge,” he said of the acceptance of electric cars.
“Give it 10 years, and I think it will be a completely different world.”
That rationale — that electric-charging infrastructure will help increase use — is why the province is investing in charging stations throughout B.C.
“It will decrease that range anxiety, which is widely talked about with electric vehicles,” says B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake, a Kamloops resident who owns a hybrid.
The 13 new fast-charging stations will have only one charging terminal, but there will be room to expand, says BC Hydro official Alex Tsang.
As the Crown electrical power provider in B.C., Hydro is managing the program from a previously announced $14.3-million provincial clean-energy vehicle program.
BC Hydro will own the fast-charging stations, while communities will provide access and operate the stations.
Tsang, who is a senior technology strategist at BC Hydro, said there will be a cost to use the fast-charging stations, but the price has not yet been determined. Tsang stressed the main objective of the first batch of fast-charging stations is for outreach and education.
“It signals to the market, to the people sitting on the fence. All of a sudden, they see a station in their community. Hopefully, it brings them off the fence,” said Tsang.In Washington state, a dozen fast-charging stations were installed last year along the I-5, I-90 and U.S. Route 2.
With a population of 6.9 million — more than B.C.’s 4.4 million — the state has about 2,000 electric car owners.
The dozen fast-charging stations had been used 3,570 times by January, the most popular sites being in Bellingham, Burlington and Tumwater, said Washington state spokeswoman Tonia Buell.
The electricity use is calculated to have displaced about 10,000 litres of gasoline.
“These locations were placed so there would be the ability to travel up and down these corridors and find charging along the way. It was really about the perception that charging is available should you want it,” said Buell.
Washington state is not charging any money for using the stations, but eventually plans to do so. The price for a 30-minute electric fast charge ranges from $7 to $21 in Texas, California and Illinois.
The Pembina Institute, a sustainable energy think-tank, believes British Columbia is on the front lines of a revolution, estimating that within 20 years, one in three cars in B.C. will be electric.
That would mean more than one million electric cars.
Pembina Institute senior project manager Katie Laufenberg said B.C., because it embraces green technology, is a good early market for electric cars.
In the meantime, Bernard is elated the province has finally announced the first 13 fast-charging stations.
“One of the sticky points of widespread electric vehicle adoption is lack of adequate infrastructure,” said Bernard.
To view the locations of electric charging stations in North America, check out www.plugshare.com.