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Still a bumpy road along the West Coast’s ‘green highway’

British Columbia hit a milestone this spring, when one out of every 25 new passenger cars purchased was electric, making it the leading province in the country for EV sales. But there are some potholes along the West Coast's "green highway."

BC Hydro signed a deal with a San Francisco company four years ago to expand a network of fast-charge stations. The deal would provide EV drivers with reliable battery charging services from B.C.'s interior down to California. These kinds of investments are meant to eliminate range anxiety – a critical selling point in persuading British Columbians to make the switch away from fossil fuels. But, as a leading proponent of electric vehicle sales discovered this past summer, the infrastructure still isn't as reliable as is needed.

Blair Qualey, president and CEO of the New Car Dealers Association of BC, took a Chevrolet Bolt EV on a road trip to the B.C. Interior, confident he'd be able to stop at a fast-charging station to juice up his car battery in the time it would take him to drink a cup of coffee.

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But the BC Hydro-owned DC charger he had been counting on was out of order, forcing him take a detour where he cooled his heels at a motel that offered a much slower, level-two charger – meaning hours of delay.

"As we're seeing an influx in EV sales, it's crucial that this is mirrored with infrastructure– the lack of charging infrastructure is the biggest barrier to EV adoption," Mr. Qualey said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in B.C., so encouraging electrification of vehicles makes sense as the province seeks to get back on track to meet its targets for reducing GHGs. In addition, as part of the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, B.C. – along with the other provinces and territories – has committed to developing a "zero emission vehicle strategy" by next year.

B.C., Quebec and Ontario together account for 95 per cent of all electric vehicles sold in Canada, and each of the three provinces offers incentives to buyers who opt for an electric car. Ontario offers the most generous rebates – up to $14,000 per vehicle, while B.C. and Quebec's rebates are smaller– perhaps because electricity costs are much lower than Ontario's. But financial incentives are just part of the picture: Drivers want to know that they won't, like Mr. Qualey, be stuck on the road with a dead battery.

BC Green leader Andrew Weaver loves driving his Nissan Leaf around Victoria, but he is skeptical about longer trips. It took two weeks for BC Hydro to repair its DC charger in Duncan, an hour north of Victoria, he noted. "If we were going to drive to Kamloops, there is no way in a million years I would drive my electric car because I'd probably get stuck on the Coquihalla Highway," he said in an interview.

Mr. Weaver raised the issue during debates with B.C. Energy Minister Michelle Mungall last week. He said there is no shortage of companies that want to install charging stations. The problem is structural – B.C. doesn't allow the resale of electricity to make the business model work.

When he is at the Legislature, Mr. Weaver's Nissan Leaf can often be found at one of the two EV charging stations behind his office. He doesn't pay for the power – and that infuriates him.

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"Unfortunately, the Legislature must subsidize the paying for that, because the Legislature cannot allow – even though all of these are set up for swiping a credit card – for me to pay for my electricity," he told the House. "I would argue that the single-biggest barrier to the introduction of electric vehicles in the province of British Columbia is, in fact, BC Hydro."

In Canada, only public utilities can sell power to consumers. In B.C. there are roughly 1,300 level-two charging stations, which are relatively cheap to install.

But the coveted fast-charge stations are, largely, a monopoly of BC Hydro. (For Tesla drivers, there are nine Tesla Supercharger stations in the province.)

Ms. Mungall acknowledged that it is a barrier, and said her ministry is working with the BC Utilities Commission to look at how to change the rules so that private charging stations can sell power to consumers.

She promised, also, that BC Hydro is working to improve the reliability of its 30 DC charging stations. around the province. "As we install these new technologies, we're learning a lot in terms of how we do maintenance," she said.

Mr. Weaver wasn't impressed. He said the problems with BC Hydro's quick-charge stations only highlight the need to find a way to let the private sector get involved.

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B.C.'s target is that by the year 2020, 5 per cent of the market for new light-duty vehicles will be emissions-free. It's not an unreasonable target – if the promised green highway is in good repair.

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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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