EV infrastructure falls behind in rural, northern communities

Added EV infrastructure is key to boosting ZEV uptake among Canadians, which in turn is central to the effort to slash transport emissions and meet climate goals.

While NRCan set a national target for charging infrastructure, “it did not establish specific targets, such as for underserved areas, which would help to ensure the equitable distribution of charging infrastructure across the country,” the Auditor General report noted. BC Hydro photo.

This article was published by The Energy Mix on Jan. 19, 2024.

By Christopher Bonasia

Unequal funding and gaps in Canada’s support for zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) infrastructure are creating challenges for drivers in remote and rural areas while undermining the country’s efforts to meet climate targets.

Around C$256 million of federal funding in a program to boost charging infrastructure was spent mostly in Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec, with other provinces and territories receiving proportionally less, the federal Auditor General found in a 2023 report.

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) distributed the funding through its 2019 ZEV infrastructure program, meant to install electric vehicle charging infrastructure “where Canadians live, work, and play” and to complement another NRCan program in place since 2016 to fund charging along core routes and highways. This added infrastructure is key to boosting ZEV uptake among Canadians, which in turn is central to the effort to slash transport emissions and meet national climate goals.

Patchy Funding for Charging Infrastructure

But while NRCan’s ZEV infrastructure program was “intended for all Canadians,” the department “did not take sufficient steps to ensure that all geographical areas would benefit from the program’s funding,” the auditor general wrote in its program assessment.

Natural Resources Canada did increase the availability of charging infrastructure, the audit found, but its implementation was heavily weighted towards only three provinces. Of the total $265.9 million funding across 353 projects for charging infrastructure between June 2019 and July 2023, 87 per cent (29,407) of the charging ports were in Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec at a cost of $228.4 million. The remainder went to the other provinces, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon.

And because project funding is only allocated to areas that apply, the audit suggested that areas without charging infrastructure may be unlikely to receive any funds if they have no ZEV owners to advocate for it or lack technical support. Notably, the program did not receive any applications from Nunavut, so the territory received no program funding for charging infrastructure.

“Nunavut’s communities, as well as many northern off‑grid communities elsewhere in Canada, rely heavily on diesel generators for their electricity needs,” the audit noted. “The emissions generated through the use of diesel offset the benefits of using a zero‑emission vehicle.”

While NRCan set a national target for charging infrastructure, “it did not establish specific targets, such as for underserved areas, which would help to ensure the equitable distribution of charging infrastructure across the country,” the audit noted.

“In addition, the project assessment process did not include weighted criteria to favour projects in rural, remote, and northern areas or other areas, such as lower-income communities that may have significant gaps in charging infrastructure.”

[NRCan has since funded a series of projects focused on regions of the country with slower ZEV uptake. The Green Resilience Project, of which Energy Mix Productions is a co-convenor, is currently organizing a series of community conversations on transportation needs and ZEV access in the Atlantic and Prairie provinces, the NWT, and Nunavut.]

Grid Challenges in Northern Communities

The downsides of lacking infrastructure are already becoming apparent in underserved areas like the Northwest Territories, where utilities are not ready for the demands of EV owners.

For example, Ben Baird, a Yellowknife resident who recently became an owner of a Ford F-150 Lightning, found he was unable to install the Level 2 charger that came with the truck because his neighbourhood grid couldn’t support it, CBC News reports.  The Level 2 units, which rely on an electrical supply greater than that provided by typical residential outlets, can offer a faster charging rate than other options. Their installation is also reasonably accessible for homeowners in areas with more robust local grid infrastructure, who can then be “untethered” from public charging stations. That makes them especially important in areas with fewer charging stations.

Baird expected to have to upgrade his home’s electrical panel to accommodate the truck, but he later found that installing the charger would require him to pay the local utility $12,000 to upgrade the neighbourhood’s transformer.

He opted to use a different charger with a slower charging rate instead, which has worked out for his needs. But his predicament is indicative of larger “growing pains” that will arise as more drivers in the North purchase EVs.

And looking down the road, higher EV demand is likely to strain the northern grid’s capacity in ways that haven’t been fully explored, with a dozen years remaining before Canada’s 2035 target for 100 per cent ZEV sales takes effect.

“At no point in our studies did we consider 100 per cent EV adoption,” said Michael Ross, a researcher at Yukon University who is leading a study about the challenges EVs will pose to the territories’ power grids. Their findings are expected to be published in November.

Gaps in Rural Areas

Even provinces like Ontario that have received significant funding for charging infrastructure show big infrastructure gaps between urban and rural areas. And since destinations in rural areas tend to be spread out over vast distances, drivers cannot always rely on a single charge from home for an entire return trip. That makes poor charging access a much more serious problem.

“We need more [charging infrastructure] to build that consumer confidence,” said Devin Arthur, chapter president of the Electric Vehicle Society in Sudbury. “The uptick in EVs is, you know, steadily, exponentially increasing every quarter. But I don’t think the charging infrastructure is really keeping up with that pace.”

In some cases, provincial governments are stepping in to fund underserved areas. Ontario, for example, has initiated a $91-million ChargeON program to build more chargers, with the specific aim of prioritizing smaller and medium-sized communities. The NWT also announced in the fall that it would contribute $3.6 million to install more chargers.

Batteries Hold Up Well in Cold Weather

As the barriers of limited charging infrastructure gain more attention, winter battery performance is another common concern in rural and northern areas. But actual experience suggests those concerns may not be as serious as they seem.

Temperatures below freezing have been shown to reduce EV driving range by 30 per cent, or even more in extreme cold. But EV proponents point out that fossil fuel-powered vehicles also lose mileage in cold weather, and that EVs can still start in extreme cold—an attribute not shared by their fuel-burning counterparts.

Advances in battery technology have also made cold weather a more manageable issue for driving range. In a dramatic display of electric vehicle capabilities, two Scottish adventurers drove an EV from the North Pole to the South Pole on a roughly 32,000-kilometre journey. Though they did need a fossil fuel-powered generator to charge the EV before they reached the Canadian mainland, they said that was because they couldn’t find a charging station—not due to the capacity of the vehicle itself.

Closer to home, Mark Vejvoda, a Tesla Model 3 owner in Prince George, B.C., proved in a 440-kilometre trip from his hometown to McBride that EV batteries can perform, even in –30°C temperatures. Vejvoda did experience a 40 to 50 per cent loss of efficiency, but he completed the drive to McBride with 25 per cent battery life remaining, considerably more than the 10 per cent the car’s onboard software predicted.

Though his drive was a success, Vejvoda said there’s room for improvement in the charging infrastructure along the route.

“When I arrived at McBride there were two chargers there, but one of them wasn’t working,” he said. “If people see more charging stations more frequently, that’s going to alleviate [the number of gasoline-powered cars].”

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