Getting plugged in to EV’s

I sense that the EV future is nearing its tipping point, the current ‘horse drawn carriage’ whilst not obsolete has a fast improving alternative.

One thing I appreciate about living it the Metro Vancouver region is the commitment to sustainability. Part of that commitment from the region and its corporate sponsors is to host sustainability community breakfasts. These free to attend events cover diverse subjects with a focus on developing the region whilst balancing social economic and environmental concerns. Previous meetings presentations are all available online to check out too. The only downside for me is the early start, 7.30am. Still, coffee is on tap and the caffeine jolt along with informative and entertaining speakers can set the day up really well.

I try to keep in touch with what’s happening in the green world and an update on how the Metro area is being charged up for Electric Vehicles (EV’s) was certainly a draw for me. I don’t know much about EVs and if a guy that does sustainability as the day job doesn’t know much, I’m guessing the wider public is at least as uninformed as me.

The first speaker was an EV owner and a teacher from Chilliwack. He positioned himself as just a normal guy, not a deep green Eco-warrior whatsoever. It really didn’t matter where on the green spectrum he was, his enthusiasm for his Nissan Leaf was obvious. He’s used the car a lot over the last eighteen months driving locally and down in to Washington state. In an EV? Really? It turns out that there’s a developing electric highway that will run along the west coast from Whistler to the south of California. At the moment it’s possible to drive as far south as the Oregon/California border in a 100 percent EV. The infrastructure is certainly developing to allow for longer trips which goes some way to addressing one of the major inhibitors to EV ownership, range anxiety. Having said that, the local infrastructure is mainly confined to more urban areas, and even though this is the EV’s home territory, with safe ranges somewhere between 100Km and 160Km (depending upon the charge state of the battery, weather conditions, how one drives, what ancillaries are used and so on), I can understand potential owners still finding range a major stumbling block. Certainly the teacher, Paul, was clear about the need to plan journeys once out of his home area. There again, at this time how many of us really use our cars to travel much further than 100Km a day, and that really should be achievable in an EV.

Another light bulb moment (LED, of course), was discover that ‘there’s an app for that!’ Plugshare allows an EV driver to quickly find public and privately shared charging stations, including the high power, fast charge stations where an 80 percent charge can be achieved in 20 minutes. Another rebuttal for the ‘it takes all day to charge’ naysayers. Paul’s car, the Leaf, also has it’s own app that allows him to check the battery state and turn on the heated seats before he goes out on a cold morning. There’s certainly lots of assistance for EV owners as well as creature comforts.

For Paul, owning an EV appears to be a magical experience. I found his exuberance infectious, he truly loves his Leaf. Even though I could have easily been caught up in the moment, one of the other main barriers to purchase was also mentioned. Cost. EV’s are somewhat stuck in the Catch-22 of limited purchases due to high cost, meaning prices stay high. A vicious circle that relies on early adopters providing the kickstart the markets needs. Unfortunately, buying an EV is considerably more expensive than being the first to own the latest Smartphone and cost surely has to be a significant factor in peoples buying decisions.

The second speaker, the President of Edible Canada may have seem somewhat of a wildcard. What on earth would a restaurant and food entrepreneur have to say about EV’s? In fact Erik Patemen was able to offer a fantastic business case for private enterprises engaging in the nascent EV revolution and installing charging stations at their premises. The fact that Erik’s bistro has a prime location on Granville Island, the second most visited location in Canada from what Erik was saying, more than helps. But his advocacy for providing EV charging as both the right thing to do and fantastic marketing opportunity was absolutely clear. He wanted to offer more patio space for customers, the trade off for Granville Island losing parking stalls was to install EV charging. The fit was perfect. A local, sustainable food business offering prime parking for a more sustainable transport choice. And, when realizing marketing opportunities with the likes of Fisker, a sustainable win/win is secured. Free charging is offered and the cost to the bistro is negligible. The bistro gets kudos and even more green credibility. EV owners get prime parking in a prestigious location.

So two very different views on ‘Charging up the Metro Vancouver region’ The case for the EV had been made as had the business opportunities offered through providing charging. However, what about the infrastructure roll out. What were the realities around providing charging stations. Next up was BC Hydro (BCH).

Alex, the Chief Technical Strategist set the scene. In February of 2013 there were approximately 400 EV’s in BC. All major auto manufacturers would be launching EV’s between 2012 and 2015. The limitations to purchase were confirmed as cost, range, education and infrastructure, all of which were being addressed in this meeting. So, as production increases and education improves the previously mentioned Catch 22 may very well be addressed. That leaves the infrastructure.

BC is fortunate to have access to almost zero emission electricity from hydro sources. Yes, construction of hydro powered generating stations has a range of environmental and social impacts, maybe that another post another day, but it makes BC a perfect environment for EV’s. Once the vehicle’s daily charge comes from coal-fired power stations, the case for EV’s needs closer scrutiny. Again, that’s not for this post. With it’s current Greenhouse Gas (GHG) reduction target and carbon tax, EV’s appear to be well positioned to make a contribution, albeit small, to the GHG target and allow drivers to avoid the carbon tax on gas. The ability to provide enough electricity may just provide BCH with an increasing dilemma. Electricity consumption in the Province is on the up, BCH is trying to educate and encourage customers to use less electricity and a growing EV population will add to the increasing demand. Another supply issue appear to be, as Alex termed it, the last twenty feet of copper. EV’s are mainly charged at home and as more EV’s are bought, the BCH supply network has additional loading to cope with. It seems that plugging in a single EV consumes a similar amount of electricity to a house at peak usage. The lifespan of local, block transformers may be shortened and equipment failures occur the more popular EV’s become. Yet another dilemma to be resolved. One final conundrum that Alex mentioned was the different charging connectors. Emerging technology and competing standards, VHS vs Betamax for the plug-in EV generation.

A short Q&A session wrapped up the morning and I left to ponder the positives and pitfalls of EV ownership. I sense that the EV future is nearing its tipping point, the current ‘horse drawn carriage’ whilst not obsolete has a fast improving alternative. However, despite my own love of technology and sustainability, one of the most significant barriers to ownership, cost, is still the deciding factor for me. I came away far better informed but somewhat frustrated that despite my interest, the technology was still out of reach.

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