British Columbia

Electric vehicle subsidies needed to entice Canadian buyers: report

Despite the hype about electric cars, less than one per cent of new car sales in Canada in 2016 were electric. Advocates are pressing the federal government to do more, and Transport Canada is working on a plan to encourage more widespread adoption.

Canadians have been slow to embrace electric vehicles, but new federal incentives may be on the way

The Tesla Model S was one of the first electric vehicles on the market, but newer, cheaper models are on the way, which advocates hope will stimulate more Canadians to adopt the technology. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

Bruce Sharpe gave up gasoline and says he's never going back.

He pushes down the pedal, and his red Tesla Model S moves off the line at a Vancouver intersection with more giddy-up than most V8-powered sports cars.

He's the president of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association and is a big fan of the technology, despite describing himself as "not a car guy."

Sharpe and others think Canadians have been too slow to adopt electric cars.

"They're quiet, they're clean, the operational costs are very low 'cause you're not buying gas or oil," he says. "They require very little maintenance because they are such simple cars."

Bruce Sharpe, president of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association, says new, more affordable electric vehicles will win over consumers in the years ahead. (Paul Prefontaine/CBC)

And in terms of performance, he notes some of the fastest cars around these days are electrics like the Tesla.

His Model S is pricey at more than $130,000, but he believes a slew of new, more affordable electric vehicles in the $30,000 range will win over consumers in the years ahead.

At the moment, he says, buyers who are making the switch are motivated by the desire to reduce emissions.

"Not only is that good for reasons of climate change, it also keeps the air cleaner, too."

But those buyers make up a tiny portion of the automobile market in Canada.

Few Canadians buy electric

In 2016, just 0.6 per cent of car sales in Canada were for electric vehicles, according to a report by Clean Energy Canada, a think-tank that advocates for alternative energy.

That's well behind the U.S., U.K., China and other countries, and a far cry from world leader Norway, where about a third of new car buyers are choosing battery over petroleum power.

Norway offers a slew of incentives, including tax breaks and preferential treatment for electric owners.

In this country, Ontario, B.C. and Quebec have had some success offering cash incentives to get consumers to make the switch, says Clean Energy Canada's Dan Woynillowicz.

"Consequently, those provinces are the only places where we're seeing much uptake of electric vehicles," he says, "so what we need in Canada is some federal policy to make sure people across the country have access to electric cars."

This electric charger means no more trips to the gas pump for car owners. (Paul Prefontaine/CBC)

Clean Energy Canada is calling for a national subsidy for buyers.

"Right now an electric car is more expensive because of its battery, but offering that rebate to people helps close the gap," he says.

The report also calls for programs to expand the network of fast charging stations and incentives to give the cars more prominence on dealership lots.

Woynillowicz says the technology is getting better and cheaper, but it already is competitive with petroleum power when you consider the total cost of buying and operating a vehicle over several years.

He notes battery prices have dropped 73 per cent since 2010, and that current vehicles have enough range on one charge for 90 per cent of Canadian drivers.

Technology improving, prices falling

That "range anxiety" is one of the biggest obstacles to widespread consumer acceptance: Canadian drivers worry about being left stranded with a dead battery, says Sharpe.

Sharpe has done extensive road trips with his car in Canada and the U.S. and says range anxiety doesn't last long.

"Most people figure that out within the first few days of having it."

And for bargain hunters, more and more used vehicles are coming onto the market at very attractive prices, particularly for entry level cars such as the Nissan Leaf.

His association's mission, he says, is proselytizing for the technology he believes offers so many benefits to drivers and to the environment.

Woynillowicz also believes more buy-in of electrics will be good for the Canadian economy, noting that Canada mines a lot of the metals used to build electric cars.

He also says there are huge opportunities in manufacturing as well as creating software for the technology that powers the vehicles.

Transport Canada says it's working on a plan for electrics as part of its Zero-Emissions Vehicle Strategy, with details to be released in 2018. 


Greg Rasmussen

National Reporter

Greg Rasmussen is a National Reporter for CBC news based in Vancouver. He's covered news stories across Canada and around the world for more than two decades. Follow him @CBCGreg on twitter.