A wave of electric vehicles is coming at us. Are we ready?

Electric vehicles make up a very small percentage of vehicles on the road in Alberta but that is going to change.

Alberta winters no reason to give EVs the cold shoulder, advocate says

The new fast-charging station at Westhills Towne Centre in southwest Calgary has an output of 45 kilowatts, allowing a vehicle to be charged in about half an hour. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Electric vehicles make up a very small percentage of vehicles on the road in Alberta but that is going to change.

The surge in popularity is coming, whether or not your town or city — or the provincial government — is fully prepared.

Many major auto manufacturers have plans to shift significantly to electric, including General Motors, which says it will only be making electric vehicles by 2035.

The federal government says that by that year, all new light-duty vehicles sold in Canada must be zero emission.

Ottawa set the target in an effort to reduce pollution, particularly from the transportation sector, which accounts for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions across the country.

And the switch to electric vehicles is apparently OK by many of us. A KPMG survey last February found that nearly seven of 10 Canadians who plan to buy a new vehicle in the next five years are likely to choose a pure electric or hybrid.

In 2017, there were just 377 EVs registered in Alberta.

By March of 2021, there were 3,527 — an increase of more than 835 per cent in just four years, but still a tiny proportion of the 3.6 million vehicles on Alberta roads.

There were also 27,459 gas-electric hybrids registered in Alberta as of March 2021, while nearly 2.9 million vehicles ran on gasoline, with diesel in second place at 388,000.

The Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) predicts thousands of electric vehicles will hit the streets and highways in the next 20 years, bringing increased power demand. Depending on the scenario, AESO predicts the province could see an increase in EVs ranging from 200,000 to two million by 2041.

With the coming wave of electric cars, all levels of government need to be ready.

Europe going electric

For a peek into the future, look to Europe, where electric vehicle adoption is widespread and growing. While Europe is very different from Canada, there is much to learn from its experience.

In particular, Canadian governments could take a page from the purchase incentives, tax exemptions and even perks — like free parking or tolls — that have helped drive EV adoption.

"I think the biggest barrier is perhaps the upfront cost," said Nicholas Gall, director of distributed energy resources with the Canadian Renewable Energy Association.

"Certainly, the operational cost is lower already, I would say, than for a conventional internal-combustion vehicle," Gall said in an interview.

"But the upfront cost can be a bit of an obstacle. And so that's why it's very important that governments, both federally and provincially, offer those incentives to enable people to purchase EVs."

A switch to electric vehicles, Gall said, is "the bare minimum we can do to sort of confront the global climate emergency."

Alberta and some other jurisdictions don't currently offer any incentives to buyers of electric vehicles, but seven provinces do, including Prince Edward Island, which offers a $5,000 rebate on new or used electric vehicles, and $2,500 off plug-in hybrids and aims to have all its residents driving EVs by 2030.

The cost of EVs can vary significantly, but even the cheapest model on the Canadian market, Nissan's LEAF, comes with a starting price of $37,498. The Tesla Model 3 starts at around $60,000.

But with lower operational costs, jurisdictions that offer incentives for EVs could gain a competitive advantage by cutting transportation costs significantly for companies and consumers. 

Weather or not

The electric vehicle industry, and the government policies and programs that support it, have to confront a commonly held Canadian bias: that EVs just can't cut it in our weather.

William York, an Edmontonian who has driven his Tesla Model 3 all over the province, and to Vancouver and Seattle, is happy to say that hasn't been his experience.

"It's been a fantastic winter vehicle," said York, a director with the Electric Vehicle Association of Alberta.

"It heats up very quickly, so it makes winter driving even less painful. It has great traction for winter driving as well, and that's due to the electric motors.

"They're very responsive and very precise, which is exactly what you need for a traction control system."

William York is a director with the Electric Vehicle Association of Alberta. He's pictured here next to his 2018 Tesla. (William York)

Gall agrees that weather is no reason to give electric vehicles the cold shoulder. 

He points to Norway — a cold-climate country like Canada —  where some estimates show more than 80 per cent of new vehicles sold are powered either electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids. It shows that with incentives, even those in a winter climate are willing to make the switch.

York noted that the cold can impact an EV's range a bit but the impact can be managed with good planning — knowing when and where to charge and how far you want to go.

But there are challenges for Alberta that will need to be addressed as the adoption of electric vehicles picks up, he said.

In some parts of the province, population centres are separated by hundreds of kilometres, which could make charging a challenge and convince some drivers that EVs are too much hassle.

Although there are a few hundred chargers in the province, most are located in or near Calgary and Edmonton, according to plugshare, an app that helps drivers find public charging locations.

Government leadership will play a big part in improving the availability of charging stations.

"Alberta has much more sprawl than Europe," York said. "So we're going to have a different particular set of challenges than they will. And I think that's kind of where the discussion should be going."

Programs and plans

So how well, exactly, are Canadian governments doing in terms of getting us all on the road to our EV future?

The federal government has announced plans related to electric vehicles, including the Zero Emission Vehicle Infrastructure Program, which will see hundreds of charging stations built across the country through partnerships and grants, and an incentive program for those looking to buy or lease an EV. 

Alberta's two largest cities have adopted strategies for electric vehicles. Edmonton approved its EV strategy in 2018 and Calgary has a similar outlook and plan. Both are focused on making chargers available and collaborating with utility providers to be ready for EVs. 

The Alberta government, meanwhile, has no specific strategy for EVs.

"Charging stations in Alberta are primarily owned and operated by the private sector and we expect new and existing operators will expand availability and options for Albertans who choose to purchase electric vehicles," Rob Williams, press secretary to Transportation Minister Rajan Sawhney, said in a statement.

Alberta's approach is a contrast to that of its neighbour to the west. The B.C. government has set benchmarks for zero emission vehicle sales, rebates for EVs and chargers and is building a large public charging network.

The private sector will have a significant role to play and is already involved, building charging stations and developing technology, among other endeavours.

Whether any of the plans will be sufficient remains to be seen as some believe Canada needs millions of charging stations to prepare for the coming wave.

But whether it's 10 or 20 years from now or even further down the road, there will come a day when EVs are far more common on Alberta roads.

Elected leaders will need a roadmap to ensure a smooth ride to that destination.