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Tesla vehicles are parked in the dealership and service centre of Tesla in Ottawa on May 10.Spencer Colby/The Globe and Mail

Janine Rutledge, an Edmonton elementary school teacher, has been a fan of electric vehicles since she bought a used Nissan Leaf back in 2016. But when she went looking last fall for an affordable replacement for the 2013 vehicle, she found the choices in Alberta extremely limited and expensive.

Her search gradually expanded from Edmonton to a used-EV dealership in Calgary, then British Columbia, and eventually across the country.

Finally, in July 2021, she found her “perfect” vehicle, a fully electric 2019 Hyundai Ioniq, at a dealership in Quebec. With less than 50,000 kilometres on it, she says she considered the $18,500 price a bargain.

“To find the same car in Alberta, it would easily be $35,000,” she says. “I never thought I’d be buying a car from Quebec, but I did.” Rutledge paid $2,000 to have the car picked up at the Quebec dealership and delivered to Edmonton. Because the car was being registered in Alberta, she needed to pay only the five per cent federal GST on the vehicle.

Canada has a target for all new light-duty cars and passenger trucks to be zero emission by 2035, but a few provinces are well ahead of the rest in reaching this goal. Rutledge’s experience reflects the difficulty EV buyers in Canada’s Prairie provinces face in finding EVs at affordable prices and without lengthy waits.

EV advocates say several factors, ranging from listless – if not hostile – provincial policies, to limited charging infrastructure, to ignorance among automobile sales staff make buying a pure EV a test of determination and patience.

“It’s really ridiculous,” says Daniel Breton, president of Electric Mobility Canada, a Montreal-based group backed by utilities, manufacturers and others that advocates for electric transportation. “OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] are not sending EVs to the Prairies. Ninety per cent [actually 95.4 per cent, according to Statistics Canada] are going to Quebec, B.C. and, to a lesser extent, Ontario.”

The number of EV registrations by province tell the tale. In Quebec, which has the highest level of government subsidies and an EV sales mandate, 18,395 EVs were registered in the first three quarters of 2021, according to the most recent numbers from Statistics Canada. British Columbia and the Territories were second, with 13,880 registrations, while Ontario, which dropped provincial incentives in 2019, had 9,949 registrations during the same time period. (All provinces and territories qualify for federal incentives.)

Meanwhile, just 251 EVs were registered in Manitoba and 214 in Saskatchewan. Statscan does not receive registration data from Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nova Scotia. The Government of Alberta reports there was an accumulated total of 3,527 hybrids, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and EVs in the province at the end of 2021.

Although buyer incentives for EVs have helped to boost sales, Breton said the need for incentives is fading as the price of gasoline approaches $2 a litre in parts of the country. Yet, he believes manufacturers are also motivated by sales mandates.

Quebec was the first province to impose a zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) standard in January 2018, in which automakers must accumulate credits by selling an increasing proportion of ZEVs or low-emission vehicles (LEVs) in that province or face stiff financial penalties. More than 46 per cent of electric cars in Canada are registered in Quebec, according to the Quebec Electric Vehicle Association.

“Most OEMs [manufacturers] won’t send [EVs] to a province that does not have a sales mandate,” Breton says. “When there’s a mandate, they will comply.”

William York, a director with the Electric Vehicle Association of Alberta, said it’s hard to find a dealership that sells EVs, and he agrees with Breton that it is because automakers ship the majority to the provinces with sales mandates. Without adequate sales volumes, the dealerships are reluctant to invest in the equipment and training needed for all-electric vehicles.

“OEMs don’t care what Albertans want,” York says. “We’re too small a percentage of the global market.”

One manufacturer, Kia, has responded by having a few of its dealerships EV-certified. At Kia West Edmonton, sales manager Ryan Kelly says the dealership sold 10 EVs in March and can secure enough supply to “sell all the EVs I want.”

EV supporters contacted for this story report that EVs at other Kia dealerships in the province are either not available for test drives or that waits for delivery exceed six months (although such waits are common across the country).

Kia Canada said in a statement: “All Kia products including EVs are distributed across the country based on consumer orders. Customers are able to order EVs from a certified Kia EV dealer in any province and will experience the same wait time.”

Other brands report supply challenges. Maleka Rajani, general manager of High River Toyota, about an hour south of Calgary, says she has a list of customers who have requested EVs, but the small dealership receives very few electrified vehicles, such as the popular RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid (PHEV) from the manufacturer.

“We get one or two units a year,” Rajani says. “They are very few and far between.”

Toyota would not provide a breakdown of EV deliveries by dealership, but Stephen Beatty, corporate vice-president for Toyota Canada Inc., says the vast majority of the 4,000 RAV4 Primes the company sold in 2021 were delivered to dealerships in B.C. and Quebec.

The company tries to match regional vehicle allocation to predicted market demand, he says. Quebec has historically been a small-car market, while Alberta is seen as pickup country. But the vehicle allocation is influenced less by sales history than by provincial government policies, he says, including sales mandates that penalize manufacturers if they miss ZEV sales targets. Those mandates have “absolutely caused disruption” in the natural sales environment, he says.

“You’re in a managed market condition,” Beatty says. “It’s very, very distressing to not be able to meet consumer demand.” With proposed penalties in Quebec for missed ZEV sales targets ranging up to $20,000 per vehicle, he says, “The more we have governments tripping over each other, the more expensive it gets.” Draft regulations in Quebec would increase the penalty for missing targets to $20,000 per car by 2025 from $5,000.

EV supporters say the EVs easiest to find in the Prairie provinces are sold by Tesla, which has delivery depots in Edmonton, Calgary and Saskatoon, and is reported to be planning one for Winnipeg. Tesla didn’t respond to requests for an interview.

Used EVs are equally hard to find, says Rutledge, the Edmonton teacher. She contacted Go Electric, a Calgary used-EV dealership, but found the choice of vehicles limited and the prices higher than she wanted to pay.

Rajko Pavic, an EV expert at Go Electric, says the company scours wholesale markets across North America in search of EVs. “Alberta has never had a good supply of them in the first place.”

Pavic says some customers tell him they have ordered a new EV, but are looking to buy a used one to drive until their order arrives. With the surge in gasoline prices, demand for EVs has soared: “The last few weeks have been especially crazy.”

EV supporters say ignorance and outdated information also discourage sales.

Tesla owner Cory Whyte of Calgary says he was bombarded with incorrect information when he visited a rival automaker’s dealership to test drive an electric vehicle. Whyte says the sales representative claimed it would cost $50,000 to have a fast charger installed in his home, that the car did not perform well in winter, the wait on delivery would be six months and that competitor Tesla had just recalled all of its cars “due to fire.”

As EV users will tell you, no one has a Level 3 “fast charger” installed at home because they’d use too much power for residential settings. Most people have Level 2 chargers, which typically charge the vehicle overnight, and can be installed for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the complexity of the job. As for the claim about Tesla, the company has not recalled all of its cars for any reason. Whyte, who already owned a Tesla, decided not to buy the rival car.

York, of the EVAA, said few drivers understand how much the charging infrastructure has grown in the Prairie provinces in recent years. He said the grid in Alberta is comprehensive enough that drivers can easily find a recharging point anywhere in the province south of Edmonton.

Alberta has 418 public fast-charging stations scattered across the southern portion of the province. Saskatchewan has 128 and Manitoba 108, mostly in cities or along the Trans-Canada Highway. (Quebec has the most charging stations – 3,188, according to Statistics Canada.) The federal government also announced in the April budget that it will provide $400-million to expand charging infrastructure across the country. The money is expected to add 25,000 new chargers and 19 hydrogen stations.

York said the policies of provincial governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba also play a role. He noted that when the Alberta government implemented a holiday from its 13-cents-a-litre provincial sales tax on gasoline on April 1, no mention was made to encourage drivers to shift to EVs. And he said Saskatchewan’s decision to implement an annual $150-per-vehicle fee on EVs to offset the loss of a road tax charged on gasoline sales, effective Oct. 1, 2021, “seems almost punitive.”

Rutledge agrees some provincial governments could do more.

“The UCP [United Conservative Party] government is not interested in moving EVs forward,” Rutledge said. “It’s oil and gas all the way.”

Travis Toews, Alberta’s Minister of Finance, said in a statement to The Globe and Mail: “The Government of Alberta is not considering a rebate for electric vehicles. We believe the best approach is a market-driven approach, which requires a level playing field for all forms of vehicles.”

In Saskatchewan, a spokesman for Highways Minister Fred Bradshaw stated: “The $150 road use fee is directed at preserving, improving and strengthening the provincial highway system. It ensures that all road users contribute to road maintenance and replacement and is equivalent to the estimated revenue that would be paid in fuel tax for a fossil-fuel-burning vehicle driving 10,000 kilometres annually.”

The statement also noted that SaskPower, the provincial utility, has developed an action plan to “understand and support the adoption of EVs in Saskatchewan.”

York believes the continuing rise of gasoline prices and eventual growth in supply of EVs will bring the Prairie provinces to an inflection point that will lead to widespread adoption of EVs. Interest in the vehicles “will be so high, dealerships will have to respond.”

Whyte, the Tesla driver, says one other factor is vital.

“Education is the best way to promote EV adoption,” he says. “Dealerships need to get into the forefront of that movement.”