Science·What on Earth?

How realistic is it to take a road trip with an electric vehicle?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at how realistic it is currently to do a road trip with an electric vehicle, and examine Ottawa's newly released Emissions Reduction Plan.

Also: Sizing up Canada's Emissions Reduction Plan

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • How realistic is it to take a road trip with an electric vehicle?
  • Sizing up Canada's Emissions Reduction Plan 
  • Canada's seed vault asks First Nations to identify important tree species

How realistic is it to take a road trip with an electric vehicle?

Electric vehicles charging at a station in Peterborough, Ont. (Doug Ives/The Canadian Press)

In our last issue, Emily Chung examined the greenest ways to travel across Canada, challenging the assumption that train travel is necessarily lighter on emissions than air travel in covering the distance of this vast country. 

In response to the article, a number of people wrote in, echoing this sentiment from reader Reynold Reimer: "I am disappointed to see no mention of electric cars in the piece about the greenest way to travel across Canada."

In our (humble) defence, the article was mainly concerned with the greenness of rail travel. But electric vehicles (EVs) are certainly a low-carbon option for seeing Canada, one we thought we'd explore this week.

EVs have no tailpipe emissions, but there are emissions involved in the manufacture of the vehicles, and quite often in the generation of the electricity needed to charge them. To properly understand the latter, you need to consider where you live. 

If you're in a province with a low-emissions grid — such as Manitoba (about 97 per cent hydro), Newfoundland and Labrador (96 per cent hydro), Quebec (94 per cent hydro) or Ontario (largely nuclear and hydro) — you can feel confident that your driving is not producing much pollution. 

Power generation is more emissions-intensive in provinces like Nova Scotia (mostly coal) and Alberta (mostly coal and natural gas). But a recent study by the International Council on Clean Transportation showed that if you factor in all aspects of the vehicle — from manufacture to maintenance to fuelling — even an EV charging on a so-called dirty grid still produces significantly fewer emissions over its lifetime than a gasoline-fuelled one.

Obtaining clean energy is one thing, but the idea that you can easily cover long distances in an EV is perhaps optimistic. It comes down to a familiar refrain: it's not the vehicles, but the infrastructure. While we're seeing improvements in Canada's charging network (with more coming, courtesy of Canada's Emissions Reduction Plan), the current situation is hardly ideal.

I know this from experience. I've been driving a Nissan Leaf since June 2019, and have undertaken a number of longish trips with my family. The car has a range of about 350 kilometres, although that will drop in cooler temperatures.

We recently completed a trip from Toronto to Montreal (about 550 kilometres) and back. As usual, we relied on the FLO app to guide us to available Level 3 (or fast-charge) stations. (Side note: Concerns have been raised that fast-charging your car too often weakens the battery, but the evidence is largely inconclusive.)

Of course, you have to find ways to amuse yourself for the 45 minutes to an hour that it takes to charge on a Level 3 machine. But beyond that, our journey was incident-free. 

But it isn't always this way. And part of the problem is the disconnect between what's promised and what's operational.

For several years now, Petro-Canada has been touting its own charging network with the slogan, "You've always been able to drive from the Rockies to the Maritimes. And now, you can do it in an electric vehicle." To that end, Petro-Canada has installed charging stations at a number of locations along the Trans-Canada Highway.

It's a laudable idea, but my two experiences with "Canada's Electric Highway" were not reassuring. The first time, my wife and I stood dumbfounded in front of a Petro-Canada charging machine, unable to get either the app or a credit card to initiate the process. When I asked a clerk inside the station for guidance, she didn't have the first clue, telling me dismissively that someone else had installed the machines, as though that was in any way a satisfying response. (We eventually got the machine to work; don't ask me how.) 

The second time, we sidled up to a machine only to find it was having what looked like a software meltdown. Having learned from our last experience, we didn't bother inquiring inside the station. Instead, we called the help number on the machine. The woman on the other line told my wife that she could get someone out to look at the machine in about a week or so.

Cara Clairman, CEO of Plug 'n Drive, a non-profit advocacy group for electric vehicles, said because a lot of companies are merely hosting these charging stations, they don't actually know how they operate.

In order to better serve a growing EV market, the infrastructure needs to improve, said Clairman, particularly in terms of offering more than one fast-charger at any given location.

"Having a single Level 3 machine at a location doesn't make sense," she said. "If someone else is using it, you end up having to wait for an hour or so."

Andre Mayer

We've laid out some of the environmental and psychological factors involved in using an EV to cover longer distances. But we want to hear from other EV drivers: What have been your experiences?

Reader feedback

Robert Judge:

"Interesting piece about rail emissions. I've often pondered my carbon footprint while watching clouds of diesel exhaust billow past VIA's observation car on train trips between Saskatoon and B.C. My wife and I have decided to take the train whenever we could over the past 15 years, not because diesel rail's passenger/mile/CO2 numbers are worth bragging about, but because we have a debilitating 'chicken and egg' problem in Canada.

"If we give up on rail because it's just as bad as driving right now, we lock ourselves into cars and planes. That would be a tragedy, because only rail has the hope of being electric-powered and battery-free. Batteries have an enormous environmental cost and part of that cost is in greenhouse gases. Steel wheels on steel rails also have far less rolling resistance than rubber tires can ever hope for. And trains, being continuous, naturally have far less wind resistance than any convoy of cars and trucks. Trains have an excellent safety record and are healthier for occupants who can relax and enjoy the trip, rather than panicking about the innumerable stresses that car drivers are subject to. By using the train as it is now, we are voting with our wallets that we believe in rail travel and hope that it will be electrified and modernized as soon as possible."

Write us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There's also a radio show and podcast! In Nova Scotia, people are watching the coast vanish before their eyes due to rising sea levels and stronger storms. What On Earth guest host Portia Clark looks at the problem of coastal erosion and the solutions underway to protect the shoreline. What On Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.


The Big Picture: Canada's Emissions Reduction Plan

Earlier this week, the federal government released the Emissions Reductions Plan, a detailed walk-through of how it proposes to meet Canada's target of reducing carbon emissions by 40 per cent (of 2005 levels) by 2030. Longtime skeptics of Canadian climate action have lauded the specificity of the plan, which includes: an additional $400 million to build electric charging stations and $1.7 billion to extend the electric vehicle purchase incentive program; an extra $780 million to fund nature-based climate solutions, including protecting or enhancing wetlands and peatlands; another $458.5 million for the Canada Greener Homes Loan program to reduce building emissions and an additional $600 million to support green electricity and "grid modernization projects."

But two pillars of the ERP have come in for particular criticism. First, while the transportation sector accounts for roughly a quarter of Canada's emissions, environmental advocates say electric vehicles appear to be the only proposed solution; public transit, for example, receives little mention. They are also concerned about the ERP's posture toward the oil and gas sector, which accounts for another quarter of Canada's total emissions. The ERP projects a 31 per cent reduction in oil and gas sector emissions (below 2005 levels) by 2030 — but the plan also cautions that the government "sees continued oil and gas use globally," albeit with "demand declining significantly in the coming decades." Ottawa hasn't imposed any significant new regulations or costs on the sector.

As some researchers, such as Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood, have pointed out, the simultaneous expectation of more oil and increasingly stringent emissions reductions means an even greater reliance on carbon capture and storage, a technology that many feel is unproven at scale and a sideshow to a more elemental climate strategy: extracting less oil.

(Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • The police service in Windsor, Ont., is converting its fleet to EVs — but you might not notice them at first. Because there aren't really electric police cruisers on the market yet, the Windsor Police Service is starting with its unmarked vehicles.

  • A pilot project that fed electricity into a recreation centre in Boulder, Colo., from a Nissan Leaf during peak times to offset electricity from the grid saved more than $2,963 US over 11 months. That's about $270 (or about $337 Cdn) per month, which the city of Boulder says is close to the monthly payment for many popular EVs, such as the Nissan Leaf, in the U.S.

  • An eco-friendly routing option in Google Maps has just launched in Canada for iOS and Android. It uses AI to account for factors like traffic and road steepness, then calculates your relative fuel savings between routes.
  • In 2021, the world hit a milestone. For the first time, wind and solar generated 10 per cent of global electricity, new research shows. The leaders in the move to those clean energy sources were the Netherlands, Australia and Vietnam.


Canada's seed vault asks First Nations to identify important tree species

(Shane Fowler/CBC)

The National Tree Seed Centre in Fredericton is like an ark for seeds.

And it hopes to send some of those seeds out into the world to help repopulate vulnerable species that First Nations communities across the country hold dear.

Since the 1960s, the seed centre has collected and catalogued millions of seeds and stored them in freezers below ground level at the Hugh John Flemming Forestry Centre.

"Our historic role has been to provide seed of Canadian tree and shrub species for anyone worldwide that's interested in Canadian species for research or educational purposes," said Donnie McPhee, the centre's co-ordinator.

But its second role, which took shape this century, is to act as a conservation centre for species at risk, he said.

Seeds coming into the centre are inspected for viability, catalogued and frozen. Most go into one of three –20 C freezers. In the case of those that can't survive such conditions, their embryos are frozen in liquid nitrogen.

Every 10 years, the centre takes a sample of each collection and gets the seeds germinating to test for viability.

The seed centre has divided Canada into "eco-districts" and is trying to store 15 to 20 collections of each species from an eco-district where they naturally occur.

"So when you're talking 700 tree and shrub species over 1,000 eco-districts, there's a lot of collections to be made to conserve and have that seed available for research and conservation purposes."

For about 15 years, the centre has worked with Indigenous communities, but McPhee described the relationship during these years as "ad hoc." The priorities of the federal government and the seed centre came first, and there was little concern for what First Nations were noticing around them, he said.

But this is changing.

"One thing we've really begun to notice over the last few years is when we're working with Indigenous communities, no matter where you are in the country, there's different species that are of concern to them," McPhee said.

"Maybe they're not a registered species at risk, but the local community has noticed that there's a decline in their populations for this particular species."

Under a program just launched by Natural Resources Canada, the seed centre is looking to focus on species that First Nations consider important. 

Over the next few years, the seed centre will be training volunteers from Indigenous communities to identify and collect the seeds they deem important. 

The Mi'kmaq ad Wolastoqey in New Brunswick, for instance, say black ash, a wood that has been historically used in Indigenous art, has become rarer in modern times.

While stands of white birch aren't rare, it has become difficult to find trees large enough to provide adequate bark for traditional birch-bark canoes. 

"Those are trees within that community that we should be collecting seed for, and that's the seed we should be planting there," said McPhee. 

Cecelia Brooks (photo above), the seed keeper for her community of St. Mary's First Nation in Fredericton, called the seed centre initiative fantastic.

"It's a long time coming, but … I really relish the idea that we're going to have Indigenous people across Canada who are going to be a part of this process of collecting the seeds and planting the seeds and growing trees."

Brooks said the need to preserve plant species isn't just important for art and heritage but also for traditional foods. 

An Indigenous seed program is already growing across Canada.

"The momentum is amazing, and so the tree seeds just make sense," Brooks said. "It's another food source for us, especially acorns, as you know. And of course, there's lots of berries and butternut and other nut trees and fruit trees that we would eat."

Shane Fowler

Stay in touch!

Are there issues you'd like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We'd love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now