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Westbound traffic on the Gardiner Expressway is pictured on May 16 2016. A $20-million provincial project to fund a sprawling network of publicly available electric vehicle chargers is facing unplanned delays.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A $20-million provincial project to fund a sprawling network of publicly available electric vehicle chargers is facing unplanned delays.

The government pledged to light up all 485 of the new stations that comprise the first phase of its cross-province corridor of fast chargers by the end of March. But one-third of them will remain dark at the deadline and likely right through the peak summer driving season, Ministry of Transportation spokeswoman Courtney Anderson, told The Globe and Mail.

While electric-vehicle advocates are lauding the progress made thus far, there are concerns that the delay – and the subsequent gaps in Ontario's charging infrastructure that limit long-range mobility – will slow momentum in the EV sales market. There are an increasing number of affordable long-range EVs for purchase with many new models scheduled to arrive in dealerships this year and next. And while most owners will do the bulk of their charging at home, prospective buyers are reluctant to embrace EV technology without a robust public charging infrastructure that gives them a safety net on the road, experts say.

"Having these chargers is especially important for persuading new folks to buy an EV," said Cara Clairman, chief executive of Plug'n Drive, an Ontario-based non-profit green-vehicle advocacy group. "It is important psychologically to new buyers. They imagine they're going to need the network," she said.

Establishing Ontario's network, called EVCO, is a key element of the province's strategy to grow the number of clean vehicles on provincial roads in the coming years. The Climate Change Action Plan aims to boost EV sales to 5 per cent of total vehicle sales by 2020. The number currently hovers around 1 per cent.

While Quebec boasts the most EVs in the country, increased rates of new buyers have been strongest in Ontario. At the end of 2016, there was a 67-per-cent increase in the number of EVs sold in Ontario over the previous year's figure. Sales have no doubt been buoyed by Ontario's generous incentive program, which offers rebates of up to $14,000 on the purchase of new EVs and further subsidies on home vehicle-charging stations.

In all, there were 9,179 EVs on provincial roads by the end of the year, more than half of which are fully electric, according to statistics compiled by FleetCarma, a Waterloo-based fleet management company that supports EV adoption.

Ms. Anderson said the charging network delays are due to various challenging "site conditions" faced by the companies and their contractors installing the stations. Although the chargers are provincially funded, responsibility for building them lies with 24 contractors who won grants for the installations at various sites, including retail centres and fast-food outlets such as McDonald's and Tim Hortons restaurants along Ontario's highways. Each site "host" will decide whether or not to offer free charging to users. In other jurisdictions, retailers commonly use charging stations – and a period of complimentary plugging in – to lure shoppers.

At more than 100 sites, issues around "land ownership, municipal permitting, electrical grid limitations and other factors" have slowed the installations, Ms. Anderson said. The province intends to release an updated map featuring the live stations at the end of the month.

Advocates working to increase the adoption of EV technology say that, even with the delays, Ontario is a much friendlier environment for battery-operated cars than it was just a year ago. Before the EVCO chargers were installed, there were just five DC fast chargers in Ontario, three of which were at auto maker headquarters (those numbers exclude Tesla superchargers, which are proprietary and only charge Tesla models), according to FleetCarma.

Access to fast chargers is essential because it removes the perceived inconvenience of battery-powered EVs, or BEVs: Just 30 minutes at the plug recharges the battery of a Nissan Leaf, a popular entry-level EV, up to 80 per cent.

Matt Stevens, CEO of FleetCarma, which will host six EVCO chargers at its Waterloo-based offices, said that if even half of the planned fast-chargers are live by next week, "Ontario is now a market ready for EVs."

"The timing of this program was always aggressive. I'm glad it was. We need this to be fast," Mr. Stevens said, adding that, despite suffering delays, the EVCO network has already "eliminated the barrier of a missing fast-charge infrastructure. That means the program will have been a success."

Chantal Guimont, president and CEO of Electric Mobility Canada, a national not-for-profit EV advocacy organization, said aggressive action plans are the only way governments will hit their climate-change targets. "Having charging infrastructure is a big part of accelerating the arrival of EVs," she said.

Once it is live, the EVCO network will technically allow Ontario to be blanketed by EVs, said Wilf Steimle, president of the Electric Vehicle Society, a provincial membership organization for EV drivers. "There is almost nowhere you can't get in the province with an entry-level electric car using the EVCO network," he said, adding: "Despite things not being perfect, they've done darn good."

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