Why advocates say Canada needs to rev up its electric car adoption

High gas prices seem to have more Canadians thinking about going electric. But issues like low supply and uneven incentives are big roadblocks. To meet climate goals of selling only zero emission vehicles by 2035, advocates say Canada needs to rev up electric car adoption.

Boosting supply, infrastructure seen as key to getting Canadians on board with zero-emissions vehicles

Electric vehicle sales in Ontario lag behind other provinces that offer incentives. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

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When Judy Goodwin wanted to test drive an electric car, she didn't head to a dealership. Instead, she went to a non-profit facility in north Toronto called Plug'n Drive.

"They're hard to come by," she said of electric vehicles (EVs). "My sister tried to buy one and she couldn't find one that was available."

Not only does Plug'n Drive have a showroom where people can test drive zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs), its staff are also trained ambassadors who will answer questions about how to charge the vehicles, their range and their costs. 

"We have found that over and over again, just that experience of trying it is what convinces people," said Cara Clairman, the CEO of Plug'n Drive, which seeks to accelerate the adoption of EVs in Canada.

A customer looks over a Ford Fusion parked at a lot in Colma, Calif., in this 2011 file photo. According to a 2020 study commissioned by Transport Canada, nearly two-thirds of dealerships in Canada do not have a single electric vehicle available to purchase or test drive. (David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

Whether driven by high gas prices or a sense of climate change-fuelled urgency, more Canadians are thinking about making the switch to electric vehicles (EVs). According to a recent survey by KPMG, nearly 70 per cent of Canadians planning to buy a new vehicle in the next five years are likely to buy electric.

But at the same time, electric cars made up just under four per cent of all vehicle sales last year — even as Canada set a mandatory target for all new cars and light-duty trucks sold in the country to be zero emissions by 2035.

To meet that goal, advocates say much more needs to be done.

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Tackle the supply problems

Nearly two-thirds of dealerships in Canada do not have a single electric vehicle available to purchase or test drive, according to a 2020 study commissioned by Transport Canada.

Now with the pandemic causing issues in the supply chain, it has become worse.

Boosting supply is essential to revving up electric car adoption by Canadians, said Merran Smith, executive director of Clean Energy Canada, a program housed at Simon Fraser University.

"They don't want to buy sight-unseen new technology, and they don't want to put their name on a list and wait for six or 12 months to get a car. When you need a car, you need it now."

Smith said the federal government needs a strong, national mandate around zero-emissions vehicles, requiring the country's car dealerships "to have the cars and to sell a certain percentage of [electric] cars."

Affordability is another key issue

While prices for zero-emission vehicles are falling, they remain more expensive than their gas counterparts — as much as $20,000 more, according to a recent TD report. The cheapest EV on the market, the 2022 Nissan LEAF, comes with a price tag of $37,498 before discounts.

More affordable electric vehicles, like the Nissan Leaf, are designed to entice entry-level buyers. (The Associated Press)

The federal government offers a rebate of up to $5,000. Smith said those incentives should continue until there is cost parity between electric and gas-powered cars, and they should also be targeted to low-income families.

"They often are the ones that can't quite afford that extra $5,000 or $10,000 that it's going to take to get the EV. But they're the ones that are going to benefit from the savings," she said.

Meanwhile, provincial rebate programs vary widely. Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nunavut currently don't offer incentives to purchase new zero-emission vehicles, but the other provinces and territories have strong programs.

And the numbers suggest incentives work: Quebec and B.C., which each offer healthy EV incentives, also lead the country in electric car adoption.

Building out infrastructure

Another roadblock to adoption is the availability of infrastructure for charging electric cars, whether the driver is going on a road trip or lives in a crowded urban centre. According to Natural Resources Canada, there are over 6,000 publicly available charging stations across Canada, but some 12,000 gas stations.

During the recent federal election, the Liberals campaigned on a platform that included spending an additional $700 million to create 50,000 new electric- and hydrogen-charging stations. If the government makes good on that promise, it would give Canada's infrastructure a big boost.

Advocates say one roadblock to the wider adoption of electric vehicles is the availability of charging infrastructure. (Nacho Doce/Reuters)

Companies are also tackling the infrastructure issue. General Motors recently announced plans to install 4,000 charging stations in Canada as part of its plan to invest more heavily in electric vehicles. 

"We've got Canadian companies champing at the bit," said Smith. "We're going to see more and more of this in the energy transition; new jobs, new opportunities for businesses as we shift off of fossil fuels onto an electric system."


Nisha Patel is a senior business reporter with CBC News. She's been reporting on business and economics for more than a decade and has lived and worked in New York City, Edmonton and Calgary. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two kids. Find her on Twitter @nishapatel.


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