With more speeds and more options, it’s getting easier to own an EV in B.C.
by Kirsten Rodenhizer
Dustin and Amanda Batchelor bought their first electric car, a Nissan Leaf, in early 2013. At the time, the model was one of only a couple of electric vehicles (EVs) on the market.
An IT professional and car aficionado, Dustin had long known about EVs but never seriously considered buying one. Amanda, a graphic designer, had been making an easy six-kilometre commute from their Esquimalt home until her office moved and her daily drive grew to 40 km.
“Our carbon footprint was increasing dramatically,” says Dustin. “That’s when I started looking seriously at electric vehicles.”
They test-drove a Leaf at a local dealership. Between the smooth, responsive ride and the projected savings on gas, it was an “immediate sell.”
“I would never go back to a combustion vehicle,” says Amanda. “After three years of driving electric, it doesn’t even occur to me to look at a gas station as I drive on past.”
There was just one problem: “After a week of using the Leaf, I couldn’t stand driving my combustion vehicle,” says Dustin. So the following year, they went out and bought a Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid, which is powered by a plug-in battery, but also equipped with a gas engine or generator that kicks in when the charge runs low. They’ve been a two-EV family ever since.
The allure of electric
The Batchelors’ story is not uncommon. As most EV owners are quick to tell you (loudly), they love their cars (read “Electric vehicle types” on page 11). Thanks to the electric drivetrain, EVs are faster off the mark than most combustion cars. With so few moving parts, they also cost little to maintain. Charging is easy: plug into a home outlet overnight and juice up while you sleep, or find an EV-reserved parking spot at a local mall or shop, where you can often charge your car for free.
For longer drives, plan ahead for stops at direct current (DC) fast-charging stations found across North America (BC Hydro maintains 30 DC fast chargers in southern B.C. alone) that can power you up in as little as 30 minutes. Then there are the fuel savings. With gas prices often tipping over $1.20 per litre, the average battery EV will save a driver more than $1,500 per year, or $15,000 over its lifetime. The environmental benefits can’t be ignored, either. In Canada, an EV can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGs) between 45% and 98% compared to a gas vehicle, depending on how electricity is generated. In B.C., where most of our power is hydroelectric, EVs generate very low emissions.
But for many, the appeal of EVs is techie: the thrill of getting your hands on the next great gadget. Deep Cove resident James McBeath falls into that category. He and his wife Suzanne bought a nearly new Nissan Leaf in January 2015.
“I’m a bit of a tech freak, so I’d been following electric vehicles for such a long time,” he says. “I thought they were such a good idea and practical for where we live.” James uses the Leaf to commute to downtown Vancouver for work and says he easily goes two days without needing to charge. They have a Subaru Outback for longer trips and big hauls. “But honestly, [the Subaru] spends a lot of time going nowhere, because we prefer to drive the Leaf,” says Suzanne.
The first plug-in EVs to hit the Canadian market were the 2011 Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. Now there are more than 20 battery EVs and plug-in hybrid EVs currently available in Canada, with new models coming out every year. Costs have dropped, too. “The price is really attributed to the battery pricing and that has come down dramatically over the last five years,” says Alec Tsang, BC Hydro’s EV infrastructure manager.
EV batteries are also living longer. Many first-generation Nissan Leaf owners report clearing 160,000 km with little or no capacity depletion (most EV manufacturers offer battery warranties for eight years or 160,000 km, but anticipate longer lifespans). The newer EV batteries also have more capacity, with long driving distances becoming less an issue for prospective buyers. Most owners say they’ve never been concerned about running out of charge, since you can plug in an EV almost anywhere.
“If you don’t own the car, it’s a big concern, but you quickly get over that. We call it range confidence,” says Bruce Sharpe, a North Surrey-based Tesla S owner. Sharpe and his wife, Dale Adamson, are on their second Tesla Model S, having traded in the first to gain access to the company’s Autopilot driver-assist system. They use the Tesla as their primary vehicle (they also have a Honda Odyssey) and joke about it causing “marital strife” because they argue over who gets to drive it. They even took the Tesla on a 12,000-km road trip across North America last year. Range confidence, indeed.
Bumps on the electric highway
In Canada, EV sales have been growing steadily, with a total of 26,230 on the road as of September 2016. But EVs still make up just 1% of new vehicle sales in the country and 2% of sales in B.C. According to Driving Television host and B.C.-based automotive journalist Zack Spencer, the main stumbling block to EV adoption is what he calls the “kitchen table discussion,” when a family sits down to decide what type of vehicle they’ll buy.
“Most people shop based on the $200 or $800 or $900 a month they’re willing to budget for a car,” he says. Government incentives and the lower running costs of EVs might be tempting; however: “When you get to the very end, most people don’t choose an electric car.”
So what will it take for EVs to win at the kitchen table? Spencer says EV manufacturers need to catch up to current trends. “[In the combustion-vehicle sector], every manufacturer is moving toward small SUVs and crossovers. These cars have replaced the family station wagon.”
There are currently no plug-in EVs comparable to the Toyota RAV 4, Honda CRV or Subaru Forester on the market. Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen all unveiled concept electric SUVs in 2016. Some of these SUVs will be available as early as 2018. One new EV, however, has a real shot at cracking the mass market this year: the battery electric 2017 Chevrolet Bolt. At a starting price of $42,895, the hatchback gets 383 km of range per charge, the kind of distance only Tesla has been able to achieve with its pricey Model S and X series.
“Everybody who’s driven it raves about it,” says Spencer. “That will be the acid test.”
Worldwide, governments see clean EV technology as a way to reach targets to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Many offer buyers incentives and rebates to go electric. Norway is the world leader in adoption, with electrics accounting for 22% of the country’s new vehicle sales in 2015, up from 14% in 2014. China’s EV sales more than quadrupled last year to 331,092 vehicles, spurred by its goal to put five million EVs on the road by 2020.
Canada currently has no federal EV program. In B.C., buyers get a $5,000 rebate on qualifying battery EVs and $2,500 on qualifying plug-in EVs. There’s also the BC Scrap-It® program’s 2017 incentives: $6,000 for buying a new EV (only 500 of these incentives are available); $3,000 for taking a pre-2015 gas vehicle off the road while switching to an EV.
BC Hydro has been working to remove barriers to owning and operating EVs in B.C. and is aligning with the B.C. government’s Climate Leadership Plan, which calls for a reduction in net annual greenhouse-gas emissions of up to 25 million tonnes below current forecasts for 2050. Since 98% of BC Hydro’s energy generation is clean and renewable, the switch from combustion cars to vehicles that plug into the power grid is one way to address this issue. Current efforts include expanding the province’s (DC) fast-charging network, investing in new charging technology and educating consumers about EVs.
Down the wire
While EVs have made major strides, widespread adoption will require a cultural shift, says Tsang. “EVs require people to change their thinking around how they use their vehicle.” Considering the average car sits unused 95% of the time and the vast majority of drivers only make daily trips of 7.5 km on average, most rarely need to think about charging.
Over time and in combination with other changes in transportation technology and infrastructure – public transit, cycling, driverless vehicles – EVs could rewrite the rules of how we develop cities, with gas stations becoming as rare as phone booths. For now, one thing is certain: with more models hitting the market every year, and more drivers going electric than ever before, EVs are rapidly accelerating into the mainstream.