Technology & Science

Electric car boom drives surge in charging-station demand

Quebec, Ontario and B.C. invest big in building networks of charging spots for drivers

Fuel Fight

A driver powers up at a charging station in California, where there are sometimes long waits to recharge electric cars. Canadian provinces are backing the construction of more stations to support electric-car drivers. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

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On a road trip to California from Toronto in his Tesla Model S, Daniel Valadares got a taste of just how popular the luxury electric cars are on the West Coast.

The whole way there — the tech consultant did the trip in 68 hours, swapping driving duties with three companions, including his mother — they didn't once have any hitches charging up the car's battery at any of the dozens of Tesla power stations along the way.

But at the Tesla supercharger station in San Mateo, just south of San Francisco, all eight charging spots were taken when he arrived, so he had to wait. A popular charging station by a scenic ranch a few hours southeast often has waits of 30 or 40 minutes to get a quick refill, he said.

Car Charging Stations

Angie Vorhies plugs in the charging cord to her Nissan Leaf electric vehicle at a mall in November 2013 in San Diego. (Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press)

The major consumer concern with early models of electric cars revolved around something called "range anxiety," the fear that the battery would run out before you could make it to your destination or a charging station.

But now that charging stations abound — there are thousands publicly available across Canada for all makes of electric cars — an emerging worry is that electric cars are becoming so popular, there will be too much charging station congestion to plug in when you need to, particularly once Tesla's mass-market Model 3 arrives.

'Some idiot ... went shopping'

"I'm on the blogs and forums, and people are afraid of having that happen. I think this is going to be a problem in the future," Valadares said.

At Plugshare.com, a website that maps North American charging stations, people complain of just that.

"I'm waiting my turn for a quick charge," a commenter posted last April while in line at Montreal's only public quick-charging station.

"We're three people here at the same time! A recharge that should take 15 minutes will take 45 because we're waiting in line."

Tesla-Tahoe Charging Station

Tesla has built a North American network of 'supercharger' stations for owners of its vehicles, but has had to send out etiquette reminders to some drivers. (The Associated Press)

Part of the problem is a lack of charging spots in key areas. But a contributing factor is charging-station etiquette, or the lack thereof. At that same Montreal quick-charge station, another commenter fumed when the person in line in front of them hooked up and then walked off.

"Some idiot left his car plugged in… and went shopping. All I need is a 10-minute boost!" 

It's the equivalent of pulling your petroleum-powered car into a gas station, inserting the pump nozzle into the tank, propping open the lever and then waltzing away to get dinner. Valadares said he's heard of it happening with Tesla drivers in the electric-car heartland of California, too.

"In the really ritzy parts of San Francisco, really rich people would park their cars at a supercharger and go shopping. Once you plug it in, the car would charge in 20 minutes, but they'd be gone shopping for three hours."

Provinces push to build chargers

Tesla's solution has been twofold. It sent out a letter to some of its customers imploring them to "promptly move your Model S once charging is complete." It is also doubling the number of charging ports at many of its supercharger stations.

Help is at hand, too, for drivers of the many other makes of electric cars available in Canada, including the BMW i3 and the Nissan Leaf. In the three provinces with the most electric car ownership — Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia — governments are pushing to build more stations in high-demand areas.

Electric car charging at a station in Quebec's Circuit Electrique

Data from Quebec shows that 90 per cent of electric-car charging happens at night at home, but the province is still seeking to build a vast network of public charging stations for the other 10 per cent of the time. (Annie-Claude Luneau/Radio-Canada)

"We've seen there have been people who have needed to wait for five to 10 minutes," said Louis-Olivier Batty, spokesperson for public utility Hydro-Québec, which is leading the deployment of a provincial network of charging stations called Electric Circuit.

He said peak times seem to be Friday and Sunday nights on the expressways between Montreal and Quebec City, when travellers are heading out on or coming back from a weekend trip.

"Our data have shown us what sites have had congestion and where we need to build more stations. We want to ensure there's no waiting line and will act in advance to prevent that."

Electric Circuit counted 619 charging stations as of last week, 30 of which are high-voltage quick-charging installations. The province is aiming for a total of 800, including 60 quick-charge, by year's end to meet the needs of its 8,500 electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Ontario is doling out $20 million in grants to get private and public-sector partners to build more charging stations, with the aim of having quick-charging stations every 60 to 80 kilometres along major highways and potentially hundreds of regular-charge terminals in cities. Details are expected to be announced within days.

'Bit of a red herring for me'

In 2011, B.C. committed $6.5 million to build public charging stations and now has a fairly robust network that supports commuting within big cities but also inter-city trips from the Lower Mainland well into the Interior.

But for Bill Clendinning, the first B.C. owner of a Nissan Leaf, having hundreds of stations available around town hasn't made much of a difference.

"It's a bit of a red herring for me and most people I know, because I don't have a need to charge when I'm out and about," said Clendinning, who lives in the Lower Mainland city of Coquitlam and drives to work every day in Burnaby, which neighbours Vancouver.

"We do 95, 98 per cent of our charging at home when we get home. We have enough range to do all the chores we need to on the typical day or weekend."

Clendinning, who finished the lease on the Nissan and switched to a Kia Soul, said the overall experience of driving an electric car has been "absolutely fantastic."

"They just feel incredible, and we made quite a significant amount of savings in life-cycle costs."

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