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Globe Drive automotive journalist Mark Richardson moderates a discussion on integrating mobile technology into society at the Smart Cities conference on urban mobility in Toronto at The Globe and Mail Centre on Feb. 12. From left, Peter Hatges of KPMG Canada, Stephen Beatty of Toyota Canada and Andrea Brown of Ontario Power Generation.

Glenn Lowson

Ontario is gearing up to power a population of electric vehicles, but how soon is the populace going to drive them?

As an example of one region’s readiness for electric vehicles, Ontario Power Generation, which produces about half of the province’s electrical generation, said it will be able to provide the extra power needed for an estimated three million or more EVs to hit Ontario’s roads in 20 years.

“The energy is there,” but the infrastructure is lacking – the ability for drivers to conveniently plug in their cars en masse overnight, said Andrea Brown, senior manager of electrification development at Ontario Power Generation

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“There have been a lot of investments made by the province and the federal government, but there’s still a long way to go," she said. “I don’t know that we can necessarily leave it all to the government. I think other parties need to take a role," she added, speaking at the Smart Cities conference on urban mobility at The Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto this week.

“Electric vehicles are by far the biggest load that we see coming into the electricity system. It’s comparable to when we saw air conditioning come into the market," she said.

Should automakers take the initiative and help build an infrastructure of charging stations, such as the U.S. electric car company Tesla has done?

Stephen Beatty, vice-president, corporate at Toyota Canada, said that, in addition to Toyota not wanting to be in the power business, a major issue is that electrified vehicles come in many formats. Hybrids run on battery and gas. Pure EVs are just battery powered. And with the technology evolving, Toyota has recently sold a fleet of 50 EVs with hydrogen fuel cells to the Quebec government, as well as partnering with Honda Canada and other companies to build a multi-fueling station in Quebec City, which includes a hydrogen fueller.

“Some of those solutions require new infrastructure investment. Some don’t,” he said. The technology will continually change for different needs, making it hard to develop one aspect of the power infrastructure over another. And at the moment, the momentum is in Quebec and B.C., he argued. "You have to have both an energy policy and an environmental policy working in parallel with each other. I suspect that will come in Ontario, but right now we’re in a hiatus.”

The difficulty is that transportation needs vary so much. “Today, there’s a very wide range of different types of [electric] vehicles on the marketplace, serving both retail and fleet needs. That’s going to continue to be the case in the future,” he said. If infrastructure favours one kind of EV technology and not another, it will only create a continuing need for gas cars to fill that gap, he said.

Peter Hatges, national sector leader, automotive at KPMG Canada, noted that the lithium battery, for instance, takes many hours to charge, and therefore doesn’t fit the needs of a parent rushing to pick up a child from hockey practice.

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“The alternative to that – and this is where the industry is pointing – is that alternate methods of electric power seem to be better,” such as hydrogen fuel cells, he argued. But the larger point is that there is ongoing debate over which technology will win out.

“I think that makes the infrastructure question even tougher. It’s a lot of money. We have 12,000 gas stations [in Canada]. Think about how many charging stations you might need, if you were to compel consumers to use electric cars," Mr. Hatges said.

Petro-Canada is among those seeing emerging demand, announcing Wednesday it is planning to open more than 50 EV charging stations across the country along the Trans-Canada Highway. Construction will begin this spring, and the stations are due to open next year, Petro-Canada said.

Mr. Hatges believes the larger impetus has to come from the federal government, with policies consistent across provinces and with the United States. Yet, he doesn’t feel that government rebate incentives are an effective allocation of public money.

Nor does Mr. Beatty at Toyota, in what may seem like a contrarian view from an auto executive. "I got into a royal smack-down with a couple of previous governments on the subject of consumer incentives. What those do is, they are putting government money into vehicles that don’t necessarily stay in the jurisdiction. It puts downward pressure on other technologies that can produce carbon reduction. And ultimately it’s money just taken off at the end of your ownership of the vehicle.

“So, it’s just a downward spiral that takes the most expensive technology, the most advanced technology in the marketplace, and reduces its value in the eyes of the consumer,” he argued.

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Instead, he favours multiple incremental policies, such as carbon targets for specific vehicles, rather than overarching policies such as rebate incentives or what he described as arbitrary targets to end gas-powered vehicle sales, which a number of countries are pursuing to fight climate change, including Britain by 2040. He argued that the existing gas infrastructure will remain “for a long time,” as EVs continue to catch on. “It’s going to be a long time before they represent half of the vehicle sales in any given year,” he argued.

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