A mall parking lot before Christmas is like a pack of hyenas fighting over scraps or vultures looking for water in the desert; it's a desperate, unhappy place. But not if you have an electric car. While other drivers circled endlessly, I slotted into a primo green-painted spot reserved for EVs, plugged in my car, and went off to sorry, excuse me, pardon me, through the mall. When I returned, the car was recharged, for free. This is too good to be true. Is this for real? Is this what owning an electric car is like?
Well, it's about to get even better if you live in Ontario.
On Dec. 8, the Ontario government announced it's investing $20-million this year to build public charging stations for electric vehicles.
The province wants to create a network of stations "in cities, along highways and at workplaces, apartments, condominiums and public places in Ontario." About two-thirds of that $20-million will go towards fast-charging stations, which can recharge a car's battery up to 80 per cent in half an hour, the Globe reported earlier.
The plan, announced by Premier Kathleen Wynne and Environment Minister Glen Murray at the United Nations climate change summit in Paris, is part of Ontario's goal to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.
Why do we need public money to pay for car charging? There are only 5,400 registered electric vehicles on the road in Ontario. With such a limited user base, there's probably not much of a business case for private companies to build public charging stations – at least not without government help.
It's a case of if you build it they will come. The government needs to kick-start EV infrastructure – exactly as it has announced here – to make these cars a viable choice for more people. Once a critical mass is reached, maybe then the private sector will see profit in EV charging.
There are precious few good cars with meaningful electric range for sale in Canada, but they are coming. A battery engineer at BMW told me earlier this year steady progress is being made on energy density – packing more range into a smaller space. Electric cars are about to get really good. A couple already are – the Tesla and BMW's i3 – but more options are needed, and at a cheaper price point.
Quebec recently took an even more radical step, revealing its intent to ban the sale of gas-powered cars by 2050. The province is part of the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Alliance, a group of 13 national and sub-national governments – including California, New York, the Netherlands, and Britain – which have all made the same commitment.
Ontario's plan to build a network of car-charging stations is good news for drivers, and for the climate. Like much of Ontario's climate-change strategy though, details are scarce – will charging be free? How many chargers will be built? Where? – but Ontario's "detailed five-year action plan" on climate change to be released next year will hopefully provide answers. But the province can and must do more if it is to meet its emissions targets, including building hydrogen fuel infrastructure and improving public transit.
"Transportation in Ontario is the single-largest emitting sector in our economy," says the government. "Greenhouse gases from cars account for more emissions than those from industries such as iron, steel, cement, and chemicals combined." Canada is lagging behind on hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure, which admittedly, is some years behind electricity as an alternative power source for cars. California has several hydrogen fuelling stations, which can fill a car in just five minutes. In Canada, Hyundai is running a pilot project in British Columbia, with the company filling the fuels cells of its experimental Tucson SUV for owners. Even one public fuelling station in Ontario would be enough to begin testing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles here.
Ontario is in an excellent position to adopt these alternative fuels. Not only because its electricity comes from relatively clean sources, but because it has too much of it. Ontario is paying New York and other places to take its excess electricity. If I have one Christmas wish this year, it's that more people will get to experience the indescribable joy that comes from getting a prime parking spot at the mall during peak insanity. The free recharge for the car is nice, too, but man, that parking spot.
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