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Electric cars get a boost with B.C. charging stations

A Tesla Model S being charged at a Sun Country Highway station.

michael bettencourt The Globe and Mail

By next spring break, college kids from Kamloops will be able to hop in an electric car – if they can find one – and make it all the way to Baja California and back without running out of battery power.

A pact to be signed this week between BC Hydro and a San Francisco company will expand the West Coast's "green highway" for electric vehicles – a string of quick-charge stations that aims to encourage more drivers to make the fuel switch.

The network of electric vehicle charging stations are located every 40 to 80 kilometres along Interstate 5 and other major roadways in the Pacific Northwest. Finding charging stations in B.C. is more haphazard.

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Currently there are only about 700 electric vehicles in the province. BC Hydro's chief technology officer, Kip Morison, said there could be 50,000 or more in a decade. The utility, which does not see any need for additional electricity supply over the next 10 years, estimates it will require an estimated 300 gigawatt hours of power by 2023 to keep those vehicles moving.

"It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing. People won't buy cars if they can't charge them," he noted, but there isn't much of a business case for building the infrastructure because there are so few users. The B.C. government has contributed $6-million to install 30 charging stations over the next three years. Thirteen of those stations are set to be complete by next March.

BC Hydro has downgraded its near-term forecasts for demand for electric vehicles – there are fewer on the road than anticipated.

But relatively cheap electric power, coupled with high gasoline prices, should make B.C. a good market.

"The idea from government was that there is a lot of range anxiety from folks who may be thinking about buying electric vehicles," Mr. Morison said. Most models can travel between 100 and 200 kilometres before the battery runs down. "They are worried if they want to go to Kelowna or Whistler for the weekend, they could get stranded."

The first round of installations will provide charging options in Metro Vancouver, in the Fraser Valley, along the Sea to Sky corridor, in Kamloops and on Vancouver Island. The stations are leased to the local municipal government.

In the United States, the network of charging stations is more developed but there have been setbacks as different companies established proprietary charging stations, locking in customers with subscriptions. Tesla drivers, for example, can access charging stations along a similar stretch of the West Coast, but they are for the pricey Tesla vehicles only.

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The DC Fast Charge system that BC Hydro is adopting will be usable for the wider range of electric vehicles. The system will be managed by Greenlots SKY, a California-based company that allows customers to pay with credit cards or via a mobile app.

"This allows you to get in your car, head up the coast and know you are never going to be too far away to charge your vehicle," Greenlots president Brett Hauser said in an interview. With BC Hydro's expansion, the green highway will reach from Baha to B.C.

"We are in a nascent industry, every dollar into infrastructure should last a long time," he said. "The United States is now course-correcting because of these stumbles." Greenlots uses charging network technology that is the industry standard in Europe, he said.

He said the early experience in the U.S. with subscription-based charging stations was discouraging for consumers.

"That is just not the way the world works today. We have these things called credit cards – I can use it to pay for parking, I can use it to buy a can of Coke, I can use it to buy a bag of chips."

While Greenlots offers a variety of options for collecting fees, BC Hydro hasn't decided if it will collect a fee for battery charging. "Part of this demonstration is an effort to understand the complexities of what business model might work," Mr. Morison said.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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