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Electric and plug-in electric hybrid vehicles charge at level two EV charging stations at Oakridge Centre, in Vancouver, on March 5, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Nearly 60 per cent of Canadian electric vehicle owners surveyed say there aren’t enough public chargers now – and experts say Ottawa must do more to lead the charge if it wants Canadians to switch to zero-emissions vehicles to help meet climate targets.

“Based on the results of our research, EV users are not satisfied with the number of chargers currently available, said Derek May, director of transportation with Pollution Probe, an environmental not-for-profit. The organization released the results of an April poll of more than 1,600 EV owners this week. “A significantly larger number of stations will be needed in the near future if we are to meet [the federal government’s] EV sales target of 100 per cent of vehicles for sale to be zero-emissions by 2035.”

Right now, there are about more than 16,000 chargers at nearly 7,000 public charging stations, according to Natural Resources Canada. Just 3,385 of those chargers are DC fast chargers, which, depending on the vehicle and the charging speed, can charge most EVs from around 10 to 80 per cent in less than 45 minutes. The rest are Level 2 chargers, which, while faster than a 120-volt household outlet (a Level 1 charger), can still take four to 10 hours.

The public chargers are run by various networks, including Flo, ChargePoint and Electrify Canada.

In the survey, about half of owners said chargers were difficult to find and needed better signage. Also, 39 per cent said they felt unsafe at chargers.

And there was dissatisfaction with the charging itself – almost half of the owners said charging took longer than expected because chargers had inconsistent or less-than-advertised charging power.

Charging ahead?

So how many chargers do we need – now and in the future?

May hesitated to give an exact number, but he pointed to a report from earlier this year that said Quebec would need eight times the number of existing public chargers to meet its goal of having 1.5 million EVs on its roads by 2030.

Even if plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are included in new federal mandates, we’ll still need far more public chargers than we have now, said Brian Kingston, chief executive officer of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association (CVMA), which represents Ford Canada, GM Canada and Stellantis Canada (formerly FCA Canada). “We’re far behind in terms of what needs to be built.”

He said the European Union recommends there be one charger for every ten zero-emissions vehicles.

In 2019, there were 35.7 vehicles on Canadian roads and it was growing every year. So, if we switch almost entirely to electric and there are 39 million EVs on Canadian roads by 2035, we’d need 3.9 million public chargers, Kingston said. Even if just 50 per cent of vehicles were EVs, we’d need more than 1.66 million more chargers than we have now. Plus, we’ll need more chargers in rural areas. Right now, most are concentrated in major cities.

Right now, it’s mainly up to private land owners who decide they want to host a station, Pollution Probe’s May said.

Typically, if a business, such as a store, car dealership or shopping centre, decides they want a charger on their property, they have to pay for it.

For a DC fast charger, that could cost $50,000 – $100,000 for equipment and $50,000 for installation, May said.

The business – for example, Canadian Tire – also pays for all of the maintenance and power used. But it receives 100 per cent of the revenue, he said.

“[They] can charge whatever fees they want,” May said. “They could make all the charging free if they want to – if it will entice more customers.”

Site hosts can apply for grants from Ottawa to cover 50 per cent of the initial equipment and installation costs as part of the federal government’s $400-million commitment to install 50,000 more chargers by 2027. But Ottawa doesn’t tell landowners where to build stations.

That’s not enough to get chargers where they need to be, Kingston said. “We are calling on the federal government to take ownership on this and start to provide some direction on where the investments need to be.”

Garage orphans?

While public chargers on highways let EV owners make long-distance trips, public chargers will become increasingly important in cities, May said. In the Pollution Probe survey, the majority of the respondents are able to charge at home now.

But this won’t work for 30 per cent of Canadians because they live in apartments or condos where they don’t have access to an outlet – or they park on the street.

“Early EV adopters [tended to be] people with chargers at home,” May said. “People who live in multi-unit residential buildings rely on public chargers to meet over half their charging needs.”

“The biggest barrier to people making the switch is convenience,” Kingston said. “So that means if you take a trip to see your grandmother 600 kilometres each way twice a year, you’ll want to be able to do that in your EV. [And] if you live in a condo and rely on public chargers, its nearly impossible to make the switch if your have to drive across town numerous times a week to charge.”

Matt Bubbers drives two of the most affordable electric cars on the market, the Chevrolet Bolt EV and the BMW i3, and offers three questions prospective buyers should ask themselves.

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