Woman's power shut down by condo after charging hybrid electric car

Electric vehicle sales in Ontario keep rising, but an Ottawa woman has been forced to fight the condo board for the right to charge her new car at home.

Number of electric vehicles registered in Ottawa has doubled, but condo bylaws lag behind

Kimberly Hsiung said her condo manager shut off her hydro after she started charging her hybrid electric car in her parking spot. (Elise von Scheel/CBC News)

Kimberly Hsiung listened to the pleasant hum of the engine as she drove home in her new hybrid electric car. 

She parked in her assigned space at her Nepean condo, then plugged the Chevrolet Volt into the post to charge overnight. 

After following this routine for two weeks, her hydro abruptly went out. 

Hsiung received an email from management shortly after.

"They cut off the power and sent us an email informing us that it is against the bylaws to charge electric vehicles," she said, explaining her specific condo bylaw only allows block heaters to use the posts. 

When Hsiung asked how she could follow the bylaws while powering her car, she was told that each condo owner who wanted to charge an electric vehicle had to get permission from the condo board, pay for an electrician and build a separate charging station on their own dime — with a hefty price tag of about $5,000.

"I think it's really silly that electric vehicles aren't accessible [in condos], especially when the infrastructure is there," Hsiung said. 

"I was charging my car for two weeks before I knew what the bylaws were and we had no issue."

Her fire-red Volt, which runs on gas as a back-up, now sits in her parents' garage: the only outlet available nearby.

Sales climb as infrastructure lags behind

Electric vehicle sales in Ontario have surged, doubling every year since 2015.

In Ottawa alone, 170 electric vehicles have been registered since January, far surpassing the 83 cars in all of 2016, according to Ontario's Ministry of Transport. 

Though battery-powered cars aren't quite mainstream yet, the provincial government is offering base subsidies up to $10,000 for vehicles with a battery capacity between five and 16 kilowatt-hours, with an additional $3,000 in rebates for vehicles with larger battery capacity and an extra $1,000 for vehicles with five seats or more. Some plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are also eligible for an incentive of up to $3,000.

Ontario has paid to install over 500 charging stations, with seven currently active in Ottawa.

Despite the government's push to adapt for electric cars, many condo owners face barriers when trying to bring the cars home.

A map of provincially-funded active chargers (green) and chargers coming soon (yellow) in the Ottawa area. (Ontario Ministry of Transportation)

'The technology is here now'

After her power was cut, Hsiung developed a proposal to bring to her condo board. But it wasn't a charger installation proposal, she wanted to change the bylaw.

"If I have to pay money anyway, I would prefer to pay money to change the policy so that other people don't have to go through this," she said.

​Her proposal was that the bylaw allow electric cars to be charged at the parking posts, with the vehicle owners paying a $35 monthly fee to cover all costs and maintenance. Non-electric vehicle owners would pay nothing. 

The board rejected her proposal, saying it wasn't inclusive because one post couldn't handle multiple electric vehicles without surpassing the circuit capacity of 15 amps.

Their response also said if everyone decided to buy an electric car, the property couldn't handle the demand. 

"I think that would show that there's enough demand that more permanent solutions are necessary," said Hsiung.

It proves that there was an issue with the policy and condo boards city-wide.- Kimberly Hsiung

She asked to amend her proposal so a suitable solution could be found for everyone involved. 

In an email, her property manager responded the issue was closed and the board would not be "pressured" into making a decision. 

Hsiung said she was told the board won't hear her proposal until next year. 

"The technology is here now and that's why we should accommodate it," she said. "I fully acknowledge that I made a mistake, but to me it proves that there was an issue with the policy and condo boards city-wide."

Hsiung charged her car from this external outlet for two weeks, until her power was abruptly cut off by management. (Elise von Scheel/CBC News)

Nancy Houle, president of the Canadian Condominium Institute's eastern Ontario chapter, said many condo boards never imagined having to accommodate electric vehicles.

"This type of arrangement was never contemplated," she said. "The real physical barrier is whether or not their infrastructure is there."

Houle added that upcoming changes to the Condominum Act may provide guidance for integrating battery-powered vehicles. 

"We won't really know until the regulations come out whether or not there will be any relief in there." 

Hsiung's property manager declined CBC News' request for an interview.

Advocates advising thorough research

While the battle for charging rights in condos rages on, advocates are telling people to expect pushback. 

"New buildings are more and more installing stations, [but] for existing condos it can be really challenging," said Cara Clairman, CEO of Plug'n Drive, an electric car advocacy group. 

"Sometimes it's very expensive to install and then other times the condo board just doesn't want to install."

Both Clairman and Houle said they advise people to do thorough research into their specific condo bylaws before buying an electric vehicle.

But it's too late for Kimberly Hsiung.

"I'm willing to cover all the cost," she said. "I just want to see these policies changed but it feels like they're using any excuse to shut it down." 

The Chevrolet Volt is the most popular plug-in car in Canada, comprising almost one third of total plug-in vehicle sales in 2016. (Elise von Scheel/CBC)