Canada is warming twice as fast the rest of the world with “irreversible effects,” the country just learned from a new scientific report from Environment and Climate Change Canada.
The release of the study roughly coincided with the rollout of the federal carbon tax, which adds 4.4 cents to the price of a litre of gas for consumers in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick. Meanwhile, Canadians in most other jurisdictions have to contend with their own provincial carbon levies.
But while Ottawa is sounding the alarm bell on climate change and dialling up the taxes on carbon emissions, it’s not doing nearly enough to help Canadians take a step that would allow them to help both the environment and their pocketbook: switching to an electric car.
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A new federal incentive for consumer-bought, zero-emission vehicles is “a drop in the bucket,” said Olivier Trescases, who heads up the University of Toronto Electric Vehicle Research Centre, along with Peter Lehn.
The 2019 federal budget includes an incentive of up to $5,000 for electric battery or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, along with tax breaks for businesses investing in clean cars and trucks. But the program for consumers, which is set to start in fiscal year 2019-20, would provide just $300 million over three years.
That should cover around 60,000 credits, reckons Trescases. By comparison, there are currently 24 million vehicles on the road in Canada.
While Trescases says a federal incentive makes more sense than a patchwork of provincial measures, this seems but a tiny step toward the government’s stated goal of ensuring that electric vehicles make up 100 per cent of new vehicles sold in Canada by 2040, he added.
Right now, electric and hybrid cars make up just two per cent of new vehicles sold in Canada, according to government figures.
There were 46,000 battery-powered or plug-in hybrid vehicles in Canada at the end of 2017, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). That compares to 762,000 in the U.S. and over 1.2 million in China. Norway, whose population of five million is a fraction of Canada’s 37 million, has 176,000.
It doesn’t help that Canada’s new federal incentive is limited to fully electric vehicles with a suggested retail price of $45,000. Currently, there are just seven car models sold in Canada that would fit the bill, although the subsidy may encourage some carmakers to lower prices just under the government’s cap, according to Trescases.
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Still, unlike the proposed federal tax break for businesses investing in zero-emission vehicles and the provincial subsidies available in British Columbia and Quebec, the new federal incentive for consumers would not extend to hybrids, which make up the majority of electric cars on the market.
From a big-picture perspective, it makes more sense to focus on electric vehicles, Trescases said. Hybrids, he added, are “a half-measure.”
But the exclusion of hybrids and the $45,000 price cap means the largest vehicles Canadians will be able to buy with the incentive are compact cars like the Chevrolet BOLT or the Nissan Leaf.
And while those models make for great city vehicles, said Trescases, who drives a Nissan Leaf, they won’t haul a family of four from, say, Toronto to Montreal.
Trescases, who has two small children, currently uses his battery-powered Nissan for errands and short commutes and a gas-fuelled car for the occasional road trip.
More money for clean cars but still few places to drive them
For Trescases, it’s not just that a compact car isn’t big enough to accommodate two car seats plus luggage, it also might not have enough range to handle long-haul travel. Indeed, the biggest stumbling block to widespread adoption of electric vehicles in Canada isn’t so much cost but a lack of charging stations, he said.
Other electric-vehicle owners share that sentiment.
“For most models on the road now and all but two models covered by this federal rebate, a trip from London to Windsor or Sarnia remains virtually impossible,” even accounting for recently announced, federally funded projects, said Owen Bradley, a Kingston, Ont.-based web developer who often takes his a 2013 Nissan Leaf on carefully planned long-range trips.
“Outside of Ontario, basic corridors like Edmonton to Calgary and Regina to Saskatoon are impassable by any means of charging,” he added.
Fully electric cars sold today typically have an advertised range of around 200 kilometres per charge. But how far your vehicle will actually take you depends on factors like driving style, weight carried, outside temperature and what accessories are in use, according to Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation.
Canada has just 5,800 publicly accessible charging stations, IEA figures show, and most of them are clustered around cities. The U.S., by comparison, has nearly 46,000 public chargers, and China has over 200,000. The Netherlands, with a population that’s less than half of Canada’s, has more than 13,000.
The federal budget has earmarked $130 million over five years to expand the network of recharging and refuelling stations for electric vehicles, but that money seems both too little and potentially directed to the wrong initiatives, according to Trescases.
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What’s needed, he argues, is “a network of fast-charging stations in very strategic places.”
Fast-charging stations are those that can power up a vehicle in under one hour as opposed to slow-charging stations, which may take four hours or longer and work better in residential settings, where people can leave their cars plugged in overnight.
To enable long-distance travel, the government should focus on what the private sector is unlikely to tackle: fast-charging stations in remote locations that would enable long-distance travel, Trescases said.
But politicians at all levels of government prefer visible projects in highly populated areas so you get charging stations in shopping malls, which are of little use since most electric-vehicle owners get a full day’s charge at home overnight, according to Trescases.
When it comes to the $130 million in fresh funding pledged by the federal Liberals, only some will serve to add charging stations in remote locations, according to the budget. The rest is meant for workplaces, public parking spots and commercial and residential buildings.
For his part, Bradley doesn’t think he’ll be able to drive his Nissan Leaf without suffering from what’s commonly described as “range anxiety” any time soon.
Despite the 2016 Ontario government program that pledged $200 million to create a provincial network of charging stations, Bradley still describes a 50-kilometre trip between Hamilton and Niagara Falls as “perilous.”