Electric vehicles move closer to widespread use, experts say

More high-speed charging stations and new technology that lets you use your electric car to power your home during a natural disaster may be a sign electric vehicles are moving closer to widespread acceptance.

New high-speed charging station, vehicle-to-grid technology may increase consumer demand

A new level 3 electric vehicle charging station was opened this month by PowerStream in the Toronto suburb of Vaughan. (Aaron Saltzman/CBC)

A new free high-speed charging station north of Toronto may be a sign that the barriers to widespread adoption of electric vehicles in Canada are being dismantled.  

"I expect that within the next five to 10 years, we'll have moved significantly along [on] some of them. And we'll continue to move forward, because the electrified vehicle, I think, is something that's here," says Charlotte Yates, dean of social sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Yates, who is currently working on a $2.1-million study on the effect of public policy on Canada's automotive industry, says public infrastructure is the key. 

"What infrastructure do we need for people who own electric vehicles where they know it's easy to charge them, it's quick to charge them, there are lots of spots to charge them, not only within the city, but perhaps along the highway?" she asks.

Power me up

Enter PowerStream, a community-owned energy company that provides power and services to more than 370,000 customers in communities north of Toronto.

PowerStream opened a new electric vehicle charging station this month in Vaughan, a suburb of Toronto. The charger is located in the parking lot of PowerStream's headquarters, just off the busy Highway 400, a key commuter highway and route to Ontario's cottage country.

What's so special about this station? Well, to start with, it's a level 3 charging unit.  

Maybe when the power goes out or maybe when electricity prices are high, you can use your electric vehicle as an alternative in order to charge your home, to provide power to your home.- Martin Rovers, director of energy services at PowerStream

That means it's capable of powering up most electric cars to an 80 per cent charge in little more than 15 minutes.

"You drive up on your way, 15 minutes later you're moving on again," says Martin Rovers, director of energy services at PowerStream.

By our count, including PowerStream's new unit, there are only about two dozen level 3 chargers in all of Canada.

Unless you can afford to shell out upwards of $80,000 for a Tesla, which has its own proprietary high-speed charging system, most electric cars have been forced to 'fuel up' at the more common level 2 chargers, which can take up to four hours.

If you power up using a level 1 charger, like you might have in your home, it can take more than a day.  

Because no one wants to have to wait more than 24 hours if their car runs out of battery power, electric cars have been mostly used by commuters going a fixed distance from home to work and back again.  

Any longer trips are enough to induce range anxiety — or the fear of running out of battery power prior to reaching your destination — in even the most ardent of electric vehicle proponents.

"One of the barriers that we've seen to adoption of electric vehicles is that range-anxiety issue," says Rovers. "This relieves that."

The electricity at PowerStream's level 3 charging station is free. 

Power up your home

PowerStream has also introduced what it says is the first commercial vehicle-to-grid (V2G) power supply system in North America.

The system allows electric vehicles to send power from the car's battery back into the grid.  

"Maybe when the power goes out, or maybe when electricity prices are high, you can use your electric vehicle as an alternative in order to charge your home, to provide power to your home," Rovers says.

Japan set up a V2G system to use electric cars as emergency generators after the tsunami and earthquake in 2011.

Proponents of electric vehicles say these types of developments show it's never been easier to own an EV.

"I think it's the perfect time to buy it," says Cara Clairman, Nissan Leaf owner and president and CEO of Plug and Drive, a non-profit organization dedicated to accelerating the adoption of electric cars.

Clairman says she pays about one-sixth the amount in fuel costs for her zero emission EV compared to a gas-powered vehicle.

"You're now in a situation where the infrastructure has grown quite substantially, so there's lots of places to charge.  Actually, we maintain an amazing map with all kinds of charging stations and it's available on the CAA app, so you can get it on your phone and find out where to charge your car. It's really that easy."

Slow to get going

The map does show hundreds, perhaps even thousands of level 2 charging stations in Canada. But almost all of those will take four hours to charge a car.

That, plus a higher cost for many electric vehicles, concern about battery life in cold climates and — more recently — cheaper gasoline have held back consumer demand for electric vehicles, says McMaster's Yates.
"The bulk of electrified cars in Canada at the moment are owned as part of fleets as opposed to individual owners.  Although there are a growing number of individual owners," she said.

In fact, Nissan says sales of its EV, the Leaf, were up 130 per cent in the U.S. in 2013.  And Nissan Canada says sales of the Leaf in Canada are set to double this year.

The Leaf starts at $31,798 Cdn, less a rebate of up to $8,500 in provincial incentives.  

But electric vehicles also face competition from another clean fuel source: hydrogen.

Toyota has just announced the name of its fuel cell vehicle (FCV), the Mirai, which means future in Japanese.

Toyota is betting the future is hydrogen, announcing it is building a network of hydrogen stations in the northeastern U.S. to support its new car.

The Mirai is expected to go on sale in North America in 2016 at a price of around $69,000 US.   

Hydrogen vehicles are about half as energy efficient as electric, but they have one key advantage: refuelling takes only about five minutes. 

Do you have a consumer issue? Contact Aaron Saltzman.


Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Business Reporter. Tips/Story ideas always welcome.


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