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In a few months, the town of Boucherville on Montreal's South Shore will welcome the first of a fleet of 50 quietly whirring compact cars in what is being billed as the largest electric vehicle pilot project in Canada.

The $4.5-million project, using Mitsubishi's all-electric i-MiEV car, is at the heart of Hydro-Québec's e-vehicle strategy. The utility views the test fleet as a key tool to gather real-world data on day-to-day use of electric vehicles.

The information will be used to make crucial decisions about how to revamp the electricity grid to meet expected rising demand based on e-car use, and how best to deploy charging stations where the vehicles can plug in.

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While Hydro-Québec sees the project as a way to get out the message that it is committed to electric vehicle (EV) transport and is a leading force among North American utilities ensuring it becomes a reality, not everyone agrees the company is on the right path.

But Hydro-Québec senior executive Pierre-Luc Desgagné, the utility's point man on the EV file, speaks in glowing terms about the three-year test project and the potential use of electric vehicles in the province.

"Our studies show we can service one million [EV]cars without having to build substantial new infrastructure," Mr. Desgagné said last week, as he joined Mitsubishi Canada CEO Koji Soga and the mayor of Boucherville at the town's city hall to show off an i-MiEV, which is powered by a lithium-ion battery.

The project will also see Boucherville municipal staff testing the vehicles. "In addition to its ecological and economical qualities, the i-MiEV test will allow the Town of Boucherville to see how electric vehicles could eventually be integrated in our automotive fleet," Mayor Jean Martel said in a statement.

(The vehicle name, pronounced eye-meev, stands for Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle. The four-passenger cars are to go on the market in Canada in late 2011. They currently sell in Japan for about $42,000.)

Mr. Desgagné noted that Hydro-Québec has three other EV projects on the go, including partnerships with Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd., Toyota Canada Inc. and Nissan Canada Inc. in a bid to explore as many aspects and potential innovations of the technology as possible.

Most other electric utilities, including B.C. Hydro and Ontario Hydro, also have extensive EV testing programs.

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North American utilities have a critical role to play in the development of a thriving EV market, said Mike Omotoso, J.D. Power's senior manager of global powertrain, based in Troy, Mich.

They could help smooth the road to consumer acceptance by setting up convenient, easy-to-use charging stations, as well as implementing incentive programs to install home chargers, he explained.

Mr. Omotoso stressed that an extensive network of public charging stations is essential to overcome so-called "range anxiety" - fear of being stranded without a charging station in sight when the power runs out.

Pierre-Olivier Pineau, an energy policy expert at HEC Montréal business school, isn't buying Hydro-Québec's EV strategy.

"Sure, these efforts make the Quebec government look good in terms of being pro-green transportation," he said in an interview.

"But for Hydro-Québec, if the electric car ever takes off, it will mean they will be trapped having to sell cheap electricity to service this new market," Mr. Pineau said. That could mean the utility would have to divert electricity to the EV market, away from the more lucrative export market to the U.S., he said.

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Mr. Pineau believes it would make more sense for the Quebec government to promote and invest more heavily in public transportation, which would also help ease the growing problem of urban vehicle congestion.

There are also tough obstacles blocking easy consumer acceptance of EVs, including the $35,000 to $40,000 price tag, he said.

Université de Montréal professor Normand Mousseau is disappointed in what he sees as Hydro-Québec's less-than-stellar R&D efforts in the field of EVs.

The utility doesn't appear to be as bold as it once was in pushing the envelope developing new battery technology, Mr. Mosseau said. And most of the infrastructure technology being tested is from foreign suppliers, he added.

"It's very minor what they stand to gain beyond providing the electricity."

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About the Author
Quebec Business Correspondent

Bertrand has been covering Quebec business and finance since 2000. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2000, he was the Toronto-based national business correspondent for Southam News. He has a B.A. from McGill University and a Bachelor of Applied Arts from Ryerson. More

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