Skeptical motorists, shortage of charging stations the biggest obstacles in Ontario's electric car plan

Ontario is on the right path to accommodate a boost in the number of electric vehicles on the province's roads, say analysts. But there are still plenty of bumps in the road ahead, including expanding the number of charging stations available and convincing skeptical motorists to embrace electric cars.

Province wants 5% of cars sold in Ontario to be electric by 2020

Ontario has some charging stations for electric cars, such as this one in the Distillery District in Toronto, but it needs a lot more if it's to follow through on its plan to increase the number of electric cars on the province's roads from about 6,500 to 14,000 by 2020. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Ontario is on the right path to accommodate the boost in the number of electric vehicles on the province's roads that the government hopes to see in the coming years, say industry analysts. 

But there are still challenges ahead, including increasing the number of fast charging stations available and convincing skeptical motorists to embrace electric cars.

Electrical vehicles are not a passing fad.- Brian Millar, spokesman for Plug'nDrive

"To get that infrastructure in place now is going to be critical," said Brian Millar, a spokesman for Plug'nDrive, an advocacy organization for electric vehicles. "Otherwise, we will wake up one day and realize 'Oh darn, we don't have any electrical vehicle infrastructure.

"Electrical vehicles are not a passing fad. They will just increase in popularity."

Earlier this week, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne unveiled the Liberal government's $8.3 billion climate change plan, which aims to see electric cars make up five per cent of new vehicle sales by 2020.

According to the plan, Ontario will continue to offer rebates of up to $14,000 for electric vehicles, including up to $1,000 for installing a home charging station, and will provide free overnight charging for residential customers for four years, starting in 2017.

The province is looking to make it mandatory for all new homes and townhomes with garages to have a 50-amp, 240-volt receptacle (plug) in the garage for the purpose of charging electric vehicles. Also, as of 2018, all newly built commercial office buildings and workplaces that can accommodate it must provide charging infrastructure. 

14,000 electric cars sold annually by 2020

Millar admits the difficulty in selling the province's plan will be convincing taxpayers to accept that the government will be spending millions of dollars to support a venture that, so far, represents a small fraction of the automobile market. 

Out of the roughly 248,000 vehicles sold in Ontario annually, around 2,800 are plug-in hybrid cars and 3,700 fully electric vehicles, according to the province's figures and FleetCarma, an advocacy group for electric vehicles.

The province is hoping that number will increase to 14,000 in four years. There are currently 11 million cars and trucks on Ontario roads.

'Battery electric vehicles will not, in theforeseeablefuture, help any nation meet their transportation needs.'- Dennis Desrosiers,  automotive industry analyst

"There isn't a jurisdiction in the world that has met the quota that have been set for battery electric vehicles," said Dennis DesRosiers,​ an automotive industry analyst.

"The fact of the matter is, battery electric vehicles will not, in the foreseeable future, help any nation meet their transportation needs."

But FleetCarma CEO Matt Stevens says Ontario's goal is certainly achievable. In Norway, he said, 35 per cent of vehicles are electric or hybrid plug-ins, according to figures from March 2016. That's seven times Ontario's intended target, he said.

"It's very feasible," he said of Ontario's target.

Power demand is manageable

As for the added strain on the hydro grid, that really isn't much of an issue, Stevens said. The Independent Electricity System Operator, which ensures there's enough power to meet the province's needs, analyzed the impact of an increase in electrical vehicles.

If everyone owns a Teslaand everyone plugs it in on the same street at the sametime, that will blow your local feeder.-  Matt Stevens, CEO of FleetCarma

If five per cent of all vehicles in Ontario were electric and were on the road today, it would only increase the province's energy demand by 0.9 per cent, Stevens said. And if every vehicle was electric, the load on the grid would only spike by 17 per cent.

"The total energy, we're fine. Where it becomes a bit of a challenge is when are those vehicles pulling the power," he said.

"So, if everyone owns a Tesla and everyone plugs it in on the same street at the same time, that will blow your local feeder. It's not an overall energy issue. It's just a peak power management issue."

Businesses, as well, could face some major costs if too many power stations are installed.

Charging your car at home won't get you very far. For long distance driving, you need widely available public stations that allow drivers to charge their vehicles quickly. (David Donnelly/CBC)

"The challenge is once you put five or 10 in the office building, you just don't get charged for the kilowatt hours, you get charged for the peak power you draw over a month, and it's called the demand charge," Stevens said. "That demand charge can be many more times expensive than the kilowatt charge.

"It becomes really problematic once you have too many stations, and then there can come a point if you don't have a smart charging system deployed, the utility can say we're not wiring you any more juice. You're capped."

$20M for charging stations

And there is still the issue of driving long distances, and the dearth of fast public charging stations for pure electric vehicles. Although most people charge their vehicles at home, and some at the workplace, that will only provide enough juice for relatively short trips.

Last year, the province announced it was pouring $20 million into public stations that charge vehicles quickly. Currently, there are only five in the province. The money would go to increasing the number to more than 200 by March 2017. (Tesla has 50 public charging stations for its own vehicles.)

"We desperately need fast charging stations, and that's what they're funding right now," Stevens said.

But Jean-François Tremblay, director of global automotive and transportation for Ernst & Young, said governments in the past have acted too hastily, built more than what was required and not studied vehicle use carefully enough.

"The key word here is predictability," he said. "With electric vehicles, there is even a higher level of predictability in terms of energy consumption versus the true need for it. And if you put in too many charging stations that don't take into account that predictability, you're just wasting money, and you're not sending the right messages."


  • An earlier edition of this story said there were 248,000 vehicles on Ontario roads and the province wants five per cent to be electric by 2020. The correct information is there are 248,000 vehicles sold in Ontario annually and the province aims for five per cent of sales to be electric.
    Jun 11, 2016 1:19 PM ET


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Canadian Press