If Canada Wants People to Drive Electric Cars It Needs to Build Charging Stations

It’ll take you 30 hours to drive across Norway, but your road trip won’t need a drop of gas if you’re riding in an electric vehicle. You can cruise all the way from Kristiansand to Kirkenes, stopping only for a few quick breaks to plug your car in to charge while you take in a view of the fjords and snack on some Smørbrød.

Norway’s wealth is largely based on fossil fuels, but they’re now looking to divest from oil and have recently become the global leader in electric vehicle (EV) adoption. Over half of all their car sales are electric or hybrid, and they’ve installed intricate networks of charging stations across the Nordic landscape—as of 2017, there were more than 10,000 according to the Norwegian Charging Station Database for Electromobility (NOBIL).

Canada’s 7,431 EV stations seem pretty decent in comparison. That is, until you realize that Norway is 3 percent of Canada’s size, and has just 13 percent of our population. And while a third of Norwegians may have made the switch to electric, we’ve barely cracked a .05% market share according to iPolitics. Our dearth of charging stations is a major reason why we can’t keep up to Norway in the EV race. “Range anxiety”—or the worry that electric cars can’t get far on a single charge—has been cited as a prime obstacle preventing Canadian consumers from going electric.

For anybody who lives in a city, range anxiety is mostly an irrational fear. Electric vehicles can travel between 200 to 400 km on a single charge, while the average city-dwelling Canadian drives just 50 km a day. But for those in rural communities, or who travel long distances on a regular basis, range anxiety is very real. When you’re the only person in Watrous, Saskatchewan with an EV, no one’s going out of their way to install a public station for you, and so your weekly trip to Saskatoon requires a lot more planning. It’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma: rural Canadians aren’t buying EVs because we don’t have charging stations, and we aren’t building charging stations because no one’s buying EVs.

Several forward-thinking local governments are powering on in spite of the statistics, wagering that if they build charging stations the new investments, lower emissions rates, and maybe even EV-driving tourists will follow. In British Columbia’s sprawling Kootenay region, only a dozen or so of its 150,000 residents reportedly drove EVs in August of last year, according to the Financial Post. Yet Kootenay’s three regional districts are spending $1.5 million to install 53 charging stations by the end of 2018.

“It’s not local demand that’s driving this initial strategy, it’s the desire to be prepared and ahead of the game to facilitate the transition to electric vehicles,” Megan Lohmann of Community Energy BC, a partner in the Accelerate Kootenay project, told the Financial Post at the time.

New Brunswick is also banking on the coming EV revolution. The province has installed an estimated 88 stations available for public use, boasting that it’s now the first “fully connected” Canadian province. But the province’s sizable investment hasn’t got everyone charged up. In early 2018, the federal government announced that the arrival of nine new stations that would require $647,500 from the federal government and $774,500 from the province. Given that New Brunswick’s EV sales jumped 124 percent from 2016 to 2017, it’s a seemingly reasonable use of public money. But that 124 percent jump is an increase of just 24 vehicles to 53, and as of last September there were only 97 electric cars on the road in New Brunswick. And without the EVs on the road to actually use the stations, New Brunswick’s charging infrastructure is budgeted to lose money until 2028. Chicken, meet egg.

Giving Canadians easy access to charging stations seems to be one way to convince them to give up their SUVs, but if widespread adoption is the goal, it can’t be the only method.

Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia are currently the only provinces that offer financial incentives for EV buyers, and as a result, their residents are responsible for over 95 percent of all EV sales in Canada. Ontario’s policies are especially robust: the province offers $14,000 off an EV purchase and 50 percent off a home charging station (the average installation price costs around $1,000). The government used to offer companies 80 percent off the cost of installing workplace stations, but applications closed in February 2018 after funds were exhausted barely two months after the announcement. Ontario’s policies have certainly been effective—they now sell more EVs than early-adopting Quebec—but they haven’t been without controversy.

Car dealers and manufacturers are criticizing EV sales requirements, condo boards are resisting new legislation that requires them to install stations upon request, and the sales incentives have been the subject of many a raging Toronto Sun op-ed.

Even Norway is feeling the heat. Norway has some of the world’s most generous incentives for EV drivers—buyers are exempt from sales taxes on their vehicle purchases, road tolls, tunnel-use charges, and ferry charges. Moreover Norwegian EV drivers get free parking, free charging, and they can use bus lanes even during rush hour. Years of government subsidies have made EVs so popular there, in fact, that the cars are overcrowding the country’s HOV lanes, and many of the most successful policies are under review.

“What we have proven in Norway is that if you give enough subsidies and impose enough restrictions on fossil fuel vehicles, people will buy electric,” Andreas Halse, Norway’s environmental spokesman for the opposition Labour party told the Financial Times in June 2017. “[But] If we want to continue to be an example for the rest of the world we need to show how this can be commercial. We need to get there because we can’t rely on public finances forever.”

So what can we learn from all this? If Canada is serious about meeting our ambitious electric vehicle targets, perhaps we’ll need to take a page out of Norway’s book: invest in charging station infrastructure outside of urban centres, offer large rebates and incentives to entice new drivers, and have an exit strategy to offload some of the staggering costs onto the private sector and avoid any public pushback.