Like most runners, Marc Bédard is used to co-existing with cars, trucks and buses on his morning jogs.
But it’s the exhaust that wears him out. “I’m running in the morning and sometimes I have one of those old diesel school buses in front of me, and I can hardly breathe,” he tells Global News.
Luckily, Bédard is in a position to do something about those polluting fumes.
The company he founded, Lion Electric, has grown into a major North American manufacturer of electric school buses and trucks.
Lion began operations in 2008 as Lion Bus, building diesel school buses. At the time, Bédard recalls, customers were not ready to transform their diesel fleets to electric. But, he saw the tide shifting, and he took the plunge. “What we were saying at Lion is that if we don’t do it now, at some point it’s going to be too late,” Bédard tells Global News’ The New Reality.
The bet paid off.
The company has more than 300 electric buses on the road in Canada and the United States, and it recently signed deals to supply delivery vehicles for Amazon and IKEA.
Lion’s factory, in the quiet Montreal suburb of Saint-Jérôme, builds 2,500 electric trucks and buses per year. The company is opening a new factory in the United States that will be able to make eight times as many units. It is also investing resources to create an in-house battery manufacturing plant in Quebec.
Investors, Bédard says, are excited about the prospect of all-electric. But the road to an EV future has not been without bumps. “You need to invest a lot of money, a lot of resources and a lot of time as well,” he says.
The shift that is taking place now, though, is undeniable.
“One kid asked me the other day, … ‘how many GHGs, or greenhouse gases, are we saving when we are using an (electric bus)?’” Bédard says. “When they get to be 20 years old, I don’t think there will be a doubt in their mind that they will be buying electric cars.”
Bédard says that “stop-and-go” operators like school buses or garbage trucks are perfectly suited for electric. But what about private passenger vehicles, which rule the roost on the road?
Transportation is the second-largest source of emissions in Canada, after the oil and gas sector. But, according to Statistics Canada, just 3.5 per cent of all new vehicle registrations in Canada last year were electric. There is still a long way to go before EVs become the norm in Canada, and there are plenty of barriers that need to be addressed before consumers buy en masse.
The first is sticker shock. Even with rebates, EVs are still generally more expensive than conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. That equation is changing rapidly, as the cost of batteries — the most expensive component of an EV — comes down.
Today, EV batteries are 90 per cent cheaper than they were 10 years ago, says Joanna Kyriazis, a senior policy advisor with Clean Energy Canada, a group that advocates for a transition to renewable energy, among other pro-environmental policies.
“Automakers around the world are in a race to produce the longest range, lightest-weight batteries at the lowest cost,” she tells Global News.
Range anxiety, and the lack of charging stations to power up EVs, are other hurdles to their widespread adoption. But that, too, is changing. More and more charging stations are popping up across North America, and some cities, such as Burnaby, B.C., have already mandated that all new residential buildings to be EV-ready. But many others are far behind.
Many Canadians are “garage orphans” — people who do not have access to driveways or to a place to charge at home. Private companies, like Quebec City-based AddÉnergie, are installing charging stations in cities around the country.
Kyriazis proposes “community charging hubs,” at recreation centres or elementary schools, to allow as many people to charge up as conveniently as possible. Canada Post outlets may be another place for EV charging stations to be located.
Alexandre Milovanoff, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto, points to a “chicken and egg” problem facing EV adoption in Canada.
“If you don’t have the EVs on the road, does it really make sense to invest that much in infrastructure? But if you don’t have the infrastructure, does it make sense to buy an EV?”
He says it is ultimately up to governments to invest in the EV revolution so that the transition becomes cheaper and easier for the driving public.
“The only way to solve this chicken-and-egg problem,” Milovanoff says, “is for the government to say ‘we invest in (electric vehicles).’”
But every additional EV car on the road also plays a powerful “network effect,” Kyriazis points out. Neighbours with EVs charging up in their driveways; EV ride-hailing vehicles and electric buses all send subtle signals to people around them that such vehicles are normal and desirable. “You see that other Canadians are easily going about their lives, having adopted (the technology).”
Clearing the air
In addition to infrastructure and other logistical challenges, there are also several lingering misperceptions around EVs that experts anticipate will be resolved over time.
One is that EVs are not as environmentally friendly as advertised, because it takes more energy to produce car batteries in the first place.
U of T’s Milovanoff, along with colleagues Heather MacLean and Daniel Posen, have done the math on emissions reductions — and concluded EVs easily outpace ICE vehicles on the emissions front.
That may sound obvious, except that emissions calculations must be made over the entire lifecycle of a vehicle, and not just over the actual manufacturing process. That larger lifecycle calculation includes the production of the batteries, as well as “upstream” emissions from the electricity generation required to feed all those batteries.
In Canada, most electricity comes from renewable sources, notably hydroelectric, but also wind and solar. In a reasonably clean electricity grid, the U of T researchers estimate that an EV’s lifecycle emissions will outpace a conventional car engine within two or three years.
“After you’ve owned that vehicle for a couple of years … and you’re driving it a reasonable amount, you’re going to have essentially a break-even with an internal combustion engine vehicle at years two or three,” MacLean says.
What then of the electricity grid’s capacity to handle millions of new vehicles powering up at all hours of the day and night?
In a report on EV adoption in Canada, the consulting group Ernst & Young concluded there would be an 11 per cent increase in electricity demand under a “rapid adoption” scenario: 13 million EVs on the road from less than 100,000 today by 2030.
While the report notes that an 11 per cent increase could theoretically cause grid overload, that many EVs are not going to hit the streets overnight.
“If all of a sudden we were going to increase the number of EVs on the road by 200 per cent tomorrow, then no, we’re not going to be ready,” says Clean Energy Canada’s Joanna Kyriazis.
But, experts say, the transition is going to be slow and steady, and this will allow electric utilities to adapt, with infrastructure upgrades and demand-side solutions, such as surge pricing.
“There’s going to be some work to be done to ensure that we have enough electricity infrastructure to continue meeting that demand, without having to turn to more fossil powered sources like natural gas,” points out U of T researcher Daniel Posen.
That could result in higher electricity bills, though not necessarily so. “I tend to think that this relationship between the transport sector and the electricity sector will be stronger,” Milovanoff says. In other words, power utilities will adapt to the new reality of most cars on the road being electric.
‘Opportunity’ for Canada
Brian Masse, the NDP member of Parliament from Windsor West in Southwestern Ontario, represents a community that has auto manufacturing ingrained in its psyche.
Masse, like Kyriazis, sees the electric vehicle revolution as a huge economic opportunity for Canada. “We’re in a platinum age of auto,” he told Global News’ The New Reality.
He worries when big investments in vehicle or battery manufacturing are announced south of the border. Ford recently announced an investment in battery research in Michigan. Masse wants to see more of those EV dollars flowing into Canada.
Lion Electric is a notable success story, but Masse believes there could be many more success stories, especially on the battery-manufacturing side. “We’re not getting that type of activity in Canada yet,” Masse says. “We need a strategy for this because there is a future.”
Both Masse and Kyriazis concur that mining is another growth area. Canada is a mining powerhouse, and there are ample supplies here of the metals and minerals required to build EV batteries.
The environmental concerns around mining, Masse says, can be addressed with careful planning. Otherwise, he says, “we’re going to give (mining) to somebody else, and that’s not right. That doesn’t make any sense.”
Kyriazis, an environmental advocate, also agrees that there is an opportunity for Canada to get into the EV battery mining game. “The U.S. wants our metals and minerals,” she said. “But we’re going to have to do a bit more to take advantage of that opportunity. It’s not going to happen by accident.”
Ultimately, the EV revolution is an opportunity to stake a claim to a more prosperous, greener economy, say proponents of the technology. “It’s part of how we want to identify ourselves as Canadians,” Masse says. “We like to build things.”
See this and other original stories about our world on The New Reality airing Saturday nights on Global TV, and online.