Want to buy an EV? Slow down there, we're in Alberta

If you are one of the few Albertans itching to join the electric vehicle (or plug-in hybrid) club, you might find yourself struggling to be able to get the car you want.

Legislation in other provinces is ensuring electric sales in Alberta aren’t a priority

A car is pictured on a snow-covered road with mountain range as its backdrop.
A Tesla Model X parked on Lake Minnewanka near Banff, Alta. (Adam Eustace/Electric Vehicle Association of Alberta)

If you are one of the few Albertans itching to join the electric vehicle (or plug-in hybrid) club, you will find an altogether different car buying experience from what you've been used to before.

At some dealerships you'll find salespeople climbing into the car with you for a test drive with the car's manual in hand — because they've never been in one of these cars either. At another, you'll be told you can't test drive their EV models because the manufacturer isn't sending any to Alberta. You can still buy it, but it will have to be sight unseen — and the wait for it to arrive could be well into 2020.

If you're in the market for an EV, you might be inclined to visit a Kia dealership to check out the Niro EV or the Soul EV, since they are two of the most moderately priced, mid-sized EVs on the market. But that will only lead you to learn that Kia is not currently selling any electric models in Alberta, nor are they offering service for EVs if you actually go through the effort to buy one of their cars out of province. 

As an explanation for this strategic decision, Kia Canada communications manager Mark James said that as supply of vehicles grows, the company will be expanding into new markets, but for now, Alberta isn't a priority.

"Right now we focus the limited availability of product on those markets that not only offer incentives to consumers but also offer the required infrastructure to support the vehicles," James said in an email. 

All of this begs the question: How has Alberta fallen so far behind?

Incentives, quotas and petro pride

In the first quarter of 2019, the total number of electric vehicles on the road in Canada cracked 100,000. The number in this province is just over 2,200. 

Alberta does not have any government incentives in place to encourage the move to EVs or plug-in hybrids (PHEVs). This stands in contrast to Quebec, which offers up to $8,000; and B.C., where rebate incentives can hit $3,000. 

Ontario used to offer up to $14,000, but that was scrapped by the Ford government after it was elected in 2018.

So, despite the federal government offering incentives of up to $5,000 from coast to coast, the rebate opportunities are not equal across provinces. 

There are a handful of reasons beyond Alberta's lack of a rebate program that have caused the lag in sales here. The first thing that might come to mind is the Alberta pride in the oil and gas industry; the rise of petro-patriotism, as coined by Maclean's. 

"There's a mentality here that somewhat naturally opposes EV ownership because they're perceived — whether true or not — as a threat to the oil and gas industry because oil is used for transportation fuels and the EVs don't use that," said William York, a director for the Electric Vehicle Association of Alberta.

York said another hurdle presents itself in the fact that Alberta is truck and SUV country, and so far what is available in those categories of vehicle isn't pushing people to buy electric — yet. 

That could change if companies like Ford keep putting out ads like the one they released earlier this month, bragging about their F-150 all-electric prototype truck being able to pull over a million pounds. Or companies like GM keep making commitments to make their entire fleet electric.

Ford unveiled its electric F-150 prototype in a commercial released in July. (Ford/YouTube)

But the biggest reason for other provinces surging ahead in the EV market is the implementation of quota regulations. 

"There's no incentive for car makers to bring vehicles to Alberta," explained Matthew Klippenstein, a Burnaby-based engineer and the EV advisor for the not-for-profit Plug-In B.C. 

To understand what Klippenstein means by that, you first have to know that most car manufacturers are losing money every time they sell an electric model. 

"Now that sounds terrible, and it kind of is terrible if you're a car maker," Klippenstein said. "But it is the norm in that sector where if you make a big change, your company will generally tolerate  losses in the belief that over time they can make money on the product."

So while companies are selling this product at a loss, B.C. and Quebec have introduced policies that have put them ahead of other provinces on manufacturers' priority lists, called a zero-emission vehicle standard, or "ZEV mandate."

In B.C. legislation was passed this spring which would require car makers to hit a 10 per cent electric target by 2025, 30 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2040. Similar rules are found in Quebec and manufacturers who don't meet the targets have to pay penalties.

Klippenstein says because these provinces have introduced this type of legislation, other provinces will either have to adopt a similar approach, a federal plan will need to be implemented, or the policy-have-not provinces will only be getting the leftovers.

But even then, supply shortages of vehicles is an ongoing problem.

Electric vehicles aren't top of mind to dealership owners, association president says

Electric sales more than doubled from 2017 to 2018 in Alberta, and in Canada as a whole too. But those numbers are still tiny when compared to the sale of gas-powered cars. 

"Still to date this year — till the end of May — there was a little over 92,000 new vehicles that have been sold in Alberta," said president of the Motor Dealers Association of Alberta, Denis Ducharme. 

So that's 92,000 gas-powered vehicles sold in five months in Alberta, versus 2,200 EVs sold ever in the province.

Denis Ducharme is the president of the Motor Dealers' Association of Alberta and has worked in the industry for more than three decades. (Motor Dealers' Association of Alberta)

So Ducharme says EVs don't make the top of the list of concerns he hears from dealership owners. Politics and the economy are what he hear about, especially since vehicle sales have hit a bit of a slump as of late.

Recently, the national association looked at the biggest shakeups coming to the industry, and again, Ducharme says EVs didn't near the top of the list.

"They predict that over the next decade the world's global automakers will undergo a structural transformation not seen since the beginning of the 20th century," he said. But the primary factor in those changes will be where cars are being made. "It'll probably be a lot of new vehicle models that'll be entering from places like China, India and Europe."

Ducharme says blame for low EV sales is improperly placed at the feet of dealerships, the pressure is on manufacturers to supply enough cars and spread them out across the provinces.

"There is a sizeable investment that goes into selling electric vehicles," Ducharme said, from training in sales to service and so on. "But whatever the manufacturer is going to provide you, you're going to sell.

"We often get criticized for [this idea] that the dealers don't even try to sell electric vehicles. Well if [dealers are] willing to put in that kind of investment, those who are saying that are misinformed because as they get them, they're going to sell."

Those with faith in the electric future

Despite the challenges to buying electric in Alberta, those who believe in the technology are finding ways around the obstacles. 

"We actually help each other out," said York, with the Electric Vehicle Association of Alberta. 

A few weeks ago, York had a co-worker who wanted to test drive a particular vehicle but none of the dealerships she'd asked had one available. York outsourced the problem on the EV community forums and they managed to find the single dealership in Edmonton that had one available.

William York says the EV community in Alberta finds ways for people who want to test drive models of cars that aren't available from dealerships including lending out personal vehicles for the cause. (Corrina Walker Photography)

"And even the community is very generous and willing to offer up their own vehicles for events for the public to see that on an even private ride," York said, including himself in that community as he estimates he's used his own car for about 100 test rides. 

York has a serious passion for EVs because as an engineer he says he finds endless joy in seeing the efficiencies in advancing technologies. 

"It is also about the gadgets and technology for me," York said. "I was one of the first people that I knew to buy an MP3 player. It was a Rio 500 with 96 megabytes of storage and cost me $400. I was 13 years old. I've never been shy to be on the bleeding edge."

But York and the EV association recognizes climate change and a push to lower emissions is a big motivator for many looking to buy electric, and in Alberta there is some confusion over whether it is an effective thing to do since so much of the province's electricity comes from coal. 

And the good news is, they've made an app to prove it is

Their web app takes the real time data from Alberta's energy producers — so you know the emissions generated by the electricity powering an EV — and then it compares different models of EVs alongside different gas-powered vehicles to show the difference in emissions. 

"[It] proves that it is it is actually cleaner to drive an EV on Alberta's 'dirty grid.' And we've shown this tool to a lot of people that have come to our events or our trade show," York said.

A screenshot of the app created by the Electric Vehicle Association of Alberta to compare EV and gas-powered car emissions, using real-time data from Alberta’s electricity producers. (Electric Vehicle Association of Alberta)

Resale and servicing

Jim Steil is an electrical engineer by training and the co-owner of Go Electric, a company selling used EVs and hybrids in Calgary. He's quite frank in voicing his opinion that anyone who doesn't believe electric is the future of driving is delusional.

He too has heard of the problems people have in trying to buy electric in Alberta. 

"There's almost no electric vehicles available for sale," Steil said.

"And I wouldn't quite say it's a wilful ignorance, but ambivalence perhaps would be a better word toward selling them, promoting them, learning about them and providing them."

Steil and his business partner sell used electric cars, but with so few EVs on the road here, the resale market is almost nonexistent. So that means the company has to import vehicles from California primarily. It offers the opportunity to go electric for those who can't afford the price of new EVs.

Jim Steil was trained as an electrical engineer before he decided to dive into the EV market. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

One of the biggest perks with EVs that people tend not to know about, is how little maintenance they require, Steil explained. Steils says he thinks dealerships won't be pushing for more EV sales for this reason — unless there's a legislated requirement to. 

"If I owned a dealership I would be quite afraid of what is inevitable and which is the replacement of gas vehicles by electric vehicles on their lots, because all of those service bays are gonna be empty," Steil said in an interview with CBC News.

But Ducharme from the Motor Vehicles Association disagrees, saying "there'll still always be a need for servicing."

The Tesla exception

Tesla has fewer than a dozen brick-and-mortar stores in Canada and paradoxically it is one of the few EV companies that's prioritized sales in Alberta, putting the only Tesla location outside of B.C., Quebec and Ontario, right here in Calgary. 

The Model 3 was the number one selling electric model in Canada in the first quarter of 2019 and that seems unlikely to change given that it's been included in the federal incentive program, after originally being excluded. 

To York, the cars are sleek, sure, but where the other brands really need to catch up to Tesla is in salesmanship. With the new technology and new experiences, salespeople need to be able to answer more questions on a topic that remains largely foreign to them. 

"There's all these good resources like PlugShare and independent research that's been put together by Nissan Leaf owners on battery degradation and Tesla owners on battery degradation that the dealership employees really need to be aware of in order to land a sale. And I think that's just lacking here in Alberta."

The mish-mash of policies regarding EVs across Canada is causing clear "distortions" in the market, says Brendan Frank, a research associate with Canada's Ecofiscal Commision. 

"The federal government has rolled out a series of policies, and I don't think it's for us to say what the right balance is," Frank said. "It would help if the provinces spoke to each other a little bit more on on this issue."

Neither EV enthusiasts nor car market experts foresee significant changes in Alberta any time soon, so without some form of change, it seems likely Alberta's EV market will be left further in the dust.


Sarah Lawrynuik is a freelance journalist who reports on climate change and conflict and is currently based in London, UK. She's covered news stories across Canada and from a dozen countries around the world, including Ukraine, Hungary, France and Iraq. She has also worked for CBC News in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary.