Little progress on outlets for electric vehicles

Ottawa — like many other cities in Canada — has been slow to plug into the electric vehicle. Though the first mass-produced fully electric cars were introduced to the Canadian market almost a year earlier, it wasn’t until Aug. 16 that Place D’Orléans shopping mall introduced what is believed to be Ottawa’s first public charging station.

Electric vehicle drivers in this country can usually count the number of stations that offer 240V outlets to plug in their cars on two hands.

In Ottawa, for example, a city that should be setting an example, five of those are at dealerships. Of those, many require an appointment or only allow their dealership’s models to juice up.

A few technology-minded workplaces also provide charges to their employees, but otherwise, drivers must eye the battery bars before plugging in at home.

Hydro-Quebec and Plug’nDrive Ontario announced Sept. 14 they plan to collaborate on developing a network in both provinces, with no definite schedule. Both the energy provider and the non-profit have been active in promoting the need for charging infrastructure.

It’s a way to encourage sales and intend to extend the model developed by Hydro-Quebec’s Electric Circuit to benefit drivers, especially those who travel between the provinces. The announcement could change the scene in Ottawa, where progress has been slow.

Early adopters said a lack of leadership and coherent planning is keeping the idea of electric cars unpopular. As the fanfare heralding the electric vehicle as the greenhouse-gas-free option of the future has quieted, the novelty is far from becoming the norm.

“It’s embarrassing to see the national capital so far behind other municipalities across the country,” said Ricardo Borba, the owner of the first Nissan Leaf released in Canada. Borba cruises past gas stations on his daily commute to and from his Kanata home, where he plugs in at night.

The consumer uptake in Ottawa has been slow, Borba said, estimating there are just 100 owners of electric vehicles, including customized and converted cars, owners of the Chevrolet Volt and other Leaf owners. But there lies the Catch-22: customers are unlikely to buy with a near non-existent charging infrastructure, and those who would install charging stations are hesitant to make a commitment without seeing many electric vehicles on the road.

The Ontario provincial government announced its vision was for one out of 20 cars to be electrically powered by 2020. Its incentive program has offered more than 440 payments of between $5,000 and $8,500 since 2010 and more than 600 green licence plates. The provincial budget in March cut funding for electric vehicle incentives to $60 million from $80 million.

The money was meant to provide incentives to private industries to provide charging stations, with plans to gather input from stakeholders with a public request for information released in May. The province is analyzing the results before determining its next steps, said Ministry of Transportation media officer Bob Nichols.

Premier Dalton McGuinty and Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli were both enthusiastic over the green and economic potential of electric vehicles, but any leader-ship on the implementation of infrastructure has been un-co-ordinated and slow, said Darryl McMahon, president of the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa.

“We have a lot of government saying this is a good idea, then what we need them to do is to step up, support initiatives like the charging stations so that people will know they’re there and take them more seriously,” McMahon said, pointing to Quebec and British Columbia, where bodies have moved decisively to install stations. The coalition between Hydro-Quebec and Plug’nDrive may be the leadership necessary to bring Ottawa to the same level Quebec already enjoys, where Hydro-Québec has partnered with hotels, restaurants and retailers to provide 240V outlets at $2.50 for unlimited charging. Gatineau is expected to have four by the end of the year.

City councillor David Cher-nushenko, who frequently works on environmental issues, said the future of electric cars in Ottawa is more likely to be in urban populations or fleets than in private consumers, and infrastructure should cater to that.

City car fleets or private delivery fleets make natural adopters of the electric vehicle because they can charge during off-peak hours and have regular routes and scheduled parking time, he said. Whether the electric vehicle extends beyond that, will be more complicated. “Pick low-hanging fruit. Pick where it is al-ready a good opportunity and extend that market, sell to the people for which this already could make good sense instead of saying ‘Someday soon this car could be for you’.”

It is less important who installs the charging stations, McMahon said, and more important to have a strategy to get them in place so drivers can have peace of mind and the electric vehicle will take a more permanent place in how people think of trans-port. Condo and apartment residents have even more trouble without a garage to install a charging station, often jumping through hoops just to plug in an electric bicycle, McMahon said.

The Place D’Orléans station was the product of a partner-ship with Myers Chevrolet Buick GMC, who offered to set up the outlet in exchange for ad space. It makes sense for dealerships to create more places for their electric models to be charged, said Myers general sales manager Andrew McAlear.

Hydro Ottawa has plans to provide its own charging stations, but no definite timeline, said media officer Claudia Lemieux.

“We’re looking at all these models and looking to find a solution that works for Ott awa,” she said.

Lemieux said Hydro Ott awa was looking into locations, stations with bilingual capacity, how to price each charge and how to encourage chargers to opt for cost-effective off-peak hours.

Borba said it takes one hour of charging to power a vehicle for 25 kilometres, so charging stations cannot be treated like gas stations.

The biggest misconception, he said, is that offering free charges to electric vehicle drivers will cost a lot of money, but the amount is often minimal, frequently less than a dollar for a two-hour charge.

Borba said he has never reached close to zero on the road, but charging infrastructure is necessary to push the boundaries of where electric vehicles can go and to bring them closer to status quo. Even with his frustration, Borba said he could not be happier with his Leaf, skipping the smell and price of gasoline and knowing he greatly reduced his carbon footprint.

“They say early adopters always pay extra, but even paying extra I think it’s worth it,” he said.

Photo © Lya_Cattel