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A backlog of orders for electric cars means buyers may have to wait years to get one.Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

When Jesse Piccin walked into a car dealership on Vancouver Island looking to buy an electric vehicle this past December, the salesperson practically laughed him out the door. He was told that, because of a growing backlog, it would take at least a couple of years to get one.

Mr. Piccin’s old Ford Escape was starting to falter, and with climate change and his kids’ future in mind, he felt it was time to ditch the “gas guzzler.” He wasn’t being picky about the make or model, as long as it could fit two car seats and was priced under $55,000, making it eligible for as much as $8,000 in provincial and federal zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) rebates. (ZEVs include battery-powered cars, plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.)

But he still couldn’t find one. He said he has spoken to at least 10 other dealerships around British Columbia, only to hear variations of the same message: If you want a new electric vehicle, you’ll either have to buy a more expensive higher-end model, forgoing government rebates, or wait – perhaps as long as three years.

“I’m effectively hooped,” the 42-year-old government employee said. “A Canadian that saved his money and is trying to do the right thing environment-wise literally has no options. There is none. So, all that talk about the need for charging stations, that means nothing if I can’t actually buy [an electric vehicle] for years.”

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In the first quarter of the year, one out of every 12 new cars sold in Canada were ZEVs, the highest figure to date. But it likely would have been even higher if supply had been able to meet the skyrocketing demand. As more and more people return to their daily commutes amid soaring gas prices, almost half of Canadians say they plan to buy an electric vehicle, up 11 per cent over last year, according to recent polling by Ernst and Young.

The supply issue isn’t exclusive to ZEVs, of course. Manufacturing shortages, including the commonly lamented microchip deficit, has led to scarcity for all kinds of cars, limiting consumer options, driving up prices and resulting in a drop in auto sales across Canada. But the wait times for increasingly sought-after electric vehicles are especially dismal.

“We don’t have any,” said Yannic Asselin, a senior adviser at Bourgeois Chevrolet in Rawdon, Que.

In an average year, the majority of cars sold by Bourgeois, a long-time leader in Canada’s ZEV market, are electric. But now there’s an 18-to-24-month wait for the popular Chevrolet Bolt, Mr. Asselin said. In February, he estimated the wait time was about eight months.

The limited supply of ZEVs that qualify for the federal rebate has naturally boosted the prices of used ones, with some nearing what they cost new.

“Used is the only option right now,” said Darryl Croft, the president and co-founder of Electric Vehicle Network, an Ontario-based used ZEV dealer.

Roughly half of his recent customers had first tried to buy a new car, he said. For anyone still interested in doing so, he advises getting on a wait list, then buying a used one, which they can sell once the new ZEV arrives – whenever that may be.

Mr. Piccin is currently on four wait lists for different cars, including one to get his name on the actual wait list. There’s a chance, he said, that he could buy the yet-to-be-released Subaru Solterra at the end of the year, at the very earliest. He called it his “Hail Mary.” In the meantime, he’s taking the bus to work to save on gas and avoid further wear and tear to his old SUV, which he’s loath to pour more money into.

Once considered a luxury, the economic case for buying a ZEV appears to be getting stronger. You can purchase a small gas-powered hatchback for as little as $12,000, but the average cost of a new car in Canada now stands at $53,437, according to AutoTrader’s latest figures. The suggested retail prices for the cheapest ZEVs range from $37,000 to $45,000.

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Depending on where you live, the cost can drop significantly thanks to various government rebates. Ottawa offers as much as $5,000 for eligible vehicles, while British Columbia, Quebec, the Maritime provinces and Yukon offer additional rebates. In Quebec, the combination of federal and provincial incentives can cut the cost by as much as $13,000.

And while the upfront cost for electric vehicles is higher than that of the cheapest internal combustion cars, recent research suggests you can save money in the long run by going green. A March study by Clean Energy Canada, an initiative out of Simon Fraser University (SFU), compared numerous electric vehicles with their gas-powered counterparts and found that, in all but one case, the EVs were less expensive over their lifetime – often significantly so.

But none of that means a whole lot to consumers struggling to find ZEVs. Some industry experts say it could take at least a decade before the supply of lithium-ion batteries that electric vehicles rely on meets the rising demand.

However, Mark Jaccard, an energy economist at SFU who helped design B.C.’s carbon tax, says we should expect supply to increase once the federal government’s ambitious ZEV mandate comes into force. It will require ZEVs to make up 20 per cent of all new light-duty vehicles sold in 2026. That target would rise to 60 per cent by 2030 before reaching 100 per cent in 2035. B.C. and Quebec, which account for more than 70 per cent of Canada’s electric cars, already have ZEV mandates in place, as does California.

Forced to sell more electric cars, manufacturers will have to find a way to lower prices to appeal to the middle-class market, Prof. Jaccard explained.

“If Canada has policies that make it economically attractive to buy an electric vehicle sooner than you would have otherwise, then that supply will get there,” he said.

But it’s not a popular proposal among the automotive industry, and several key details of Ottawa’s ZEV mandate remain unclear.

“How are we going to meet any of those climate change targets?” wondered Mr. Piccin. “We’re not off to a good start.”

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