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Preparing for a plug-in future Add to ...

When most people drive around a city, their prime concern is dodging traffic. For Brian Denney, it's a matter of how many questions he'll have to answer about the Prius he's driving.

"Every time you're stuck in heavy traffic, people roll down their window and yell a question looking to know how it works," Mr. Denney, chief administrative officer of the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, says of the plug-in hybrid that he drives regularly, one of several in the organization's tiny gas-electric fleet.

"It indicates there's a lot of interest in the marketplace for electric vehicles."

Indeed, in recent years models such as Toyota's Prius and the soon-to-be-released Chevrolet Volt have piqued consumer interest in the prospects of driving a vehicle that runs in whole or in part on electricity.

But perhaps the more pressing consideration for the average Canadian driver is whether existing infrastructure would make owning and operating a fully battery-powered, plug-in car a comfortable proposition.

"It's no more difficult to get around in this hybrid because [it also has an internal combustion engine] but you do find yourself trolling for a plug," Mr. Denney says of the conservation authority's Prius, which can be charged in a standard 110V outlet. "I can usually find a place to plug in, but that's often in a municipal office or underground parking lot where I happen to find an electrical outlet."

And what if that car was fully electric, running on battery power alone?

"On a prototype scale like this, it's no problem at all," he says, "but if there were 10,000 of them on the road, it would be a real issue."

It's clear that significant urban planning changes will be needed for the coming electric-car onslaught as consumers look to charge green cars at home, at work and at public locations such as shopping malls.

Barriers to the widespread embrace of the electric car are complex. Without proper infrastructure, and co-ordination among governments, utilities and building developers, drivers will almost certainly stick to their gas-

powered rides.

"We need the transportation guys talking to the condo guys that are building spots in garages," says Andrew Bowerbank, president of the EC3 Initiative, a Toronto-based renewable energy consultancy. Mr. Bowerbank recently spearheaded a cross-discipline workshop in Toronto to allow key stakeholders to open that dialogue.

"I think electric cars have a very strong potential," he adds, "especially if you find a way to manage our electric grid and utilize renewable technologies so we put as much on the grid as we take off."

The issue of power drain is a major concern.

According to some estimates, Ontario's existing power grid could accommodate as many as 10 million electric vehicles each year, assuming most were charged in off-peak hours and used smart technology that allowed the grid to draw power from plugged-in vehicles at times of peak energy use.

That kind of technology isn't the stuff of science fiction. Just last week, Ford Motor Co. and Microsoft Corp. debuted Microsoft Hohm, a new online application free to owners of Ford plug-in cars that will help them choose ideal times to charge their vehicles.

Assuming those grid projections are correct, there's still the as-yet-undetermined issue of standardization. Although vehicle makers including GM, Chrysler, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Tesla agreed on a standard electric vehicle connector to charge cars at either 120 or 240 volts earlier this year, faster charging technologies could soon render that plug obsolete.

Despite the logistical challenges, some progress is being made on the legislative front to serve early plug-in adopters.

The City of Vancouver, for example, now requires all new single-family homes - as well as 20 per cent of all parking stalls in new condominiums - to include plug-in outlets, while Ontario is offering up to $10,000 in car rebates to subsidize steep electric-car sticker prices, which can be double the cost of an average car.

Al Cormier, executive director of the Toronto-based electric car advocacy organization Electric Mobility Canada, says jurisdictions across Canada need to work together if electric car adoption is ever going to gain speed.

"We need more building code amendments to require new condos to have parking outlets at least in a percentage of parking spots," he says. "Then we need to deal with retrofitting older condos. It's not rocket science to run the wires and the plugs, but it takes will and a bit of money to do it."

Some developers are already jumping on the electric-car bandwagon.

Vancouver-based Concord Pacific Group Inc. last year announced that its latest Vancouver condo, the 23-storey Cosmo set to open in 2012, will include outlets in about 20 per cent of parking stalls, while Ottawa-based Minto Group Inc. is roughing in wiring for electric outlets for 10 per cent of parking stalls in one of its new Toronto condos. (The builder plans to hardwire a portion of spots in all of its future developments, but is hesitant to install actual outlets until charging standards are fully clarified.)

"We wanted to build in the capacity to ensure that our consumers are protected when they move in," says Andrew Pride, vice-president of the Minto Group's Green Team.

Stephen Dupuis, president and CEO of the Toronto-based Building Industry and Land Development Association, argues that greater collaboration between stakeholders such as governments and builders is needed to avoid turning a green solution into a major new cost and logistical issue for home and condo builders. He also questions just how ready the market is for electric cars.

"I suppose it will become more of a higher-level planning issue if market penetration gets to 20 or 30 per cent. At that point it's a sea change in the transportation industry, but I don't believe that's close."

But as Mr. Cormier explains, one major factor could fuel the thirst for plug-in cars, encourage municipal governments to pass more coherent and consistent infrastructure bylaws, and give builders and retailers an incentive to retrofit public lots to accommodate these green machines: a major spike in the price of gasoline.

"If gas gets to around $1.30 per litre, a lot more people will want hybrids at least, if not electric vehicles," he says. "There's no question that people need to accept that electric cars are coming and be ready for them."

***

Charging up

500,000

Number of highway-capable plug-in electric vehicles that Industry Canada estimates will be on Canadian roads by 2018.

$750

Cost in Canadian dollars of installing a 240V outlet in a home capable of charging a plug-in vehicle, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Snowmass, Colo.-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting renewable energy solutions.

$3,500

Cost of installing a public charging unit - although the Rocky Mountain Institute says that could be higher as the estimated costs for charging stations vary greatly depending on where they are installed. Not included is the possible ongoing cost of billing drivers for the electricity, for example, through a credit-card system.

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