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The Globe and Mail

The long, hard road ahead for electric cars

Only one week after the much-hyped rollout of electric cars at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Canadian news media carried reports about how Ontario electricity costs are expected to double over the next 20 years.

That forecast must have Ontarians questioning whether buying an electric car is a good idea. But there are other questions all Canadians would be wise to ask about electric cars, and the electricity needed to power them. Let's put those questions into perspective.

Will there be enough electricity?

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Even the staggering electricity rate increases announced by Ontario would not generate nearly enough power to handle a large auto-recharge load, nor could already stretched power grids handle it, either. Hydro-Québec recently said its distribution grid could accommodate a meagre 1,000 car plug-ins. In other provinces also, costly retooling of power generation, mainline transmission and local distribution grids would be required.

Won't wind and solar generate a lot of the power needed for electric cars?

Wind and solar generate less than 1 per cent of Canada's power supply, and most provinces have subsidies aimed at increasing that portion. The most spectacular example of the sky-rocketing cost of subsidies can be seen in Ontario, where the Liberal government forces consumers to pay 16 times as much for solar power, and three times more for wind, as the current average electricity rate. Ontario's 20-year power plan calls for $23-billion in subsidies to the wind and solar industry, supposedly allowing coal-fired power to be phased out. But its own numbers show that with wind and solar capacity available less than 30 per cent of the time, these costly projects still won't bring about the end of coal. Meanwhile, electricity consumers will be hit with price increases of 46 per cent over the next five years, making Ontario industry uncompetitive with almost all provinces and American states. No wonder Premier Dalton McGuinty's green dream is turning into a nightmare as an election looms.

Are electric cars really "green"?

That depends on how the electricity is generated. Water generates most of the electricity in Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Manitoba and B.C., while Alberta and Saskatchewan generate nearly all power from coal and natural gas. Overall, about 75 per cent of Canada's electricity comes from water and nuclear power, and 25 per cent from fossil fuels. When measured by fossil-fuel emissions, use of electric cars in Canada can generally be considered green. The situation is the reverse in the United States, where fossil fuels, mainly coal, generate 75 per cent of electricity. So operating an electric car there would account for more fossil-fuel emissions than a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle (thus making GM's Chevy Volt a tougher sell to eco-conscious consumers, the target market for electric vehicles).

Are electric cars practical in Canada?

Besides of their high price tag, limited range and the inconvenience of long charging cycles, there's another factor that even the greenest Canadians need to consider before buying an electric car: our northern climate. Anyone who has had trouble starting a car in cold weather knows that battery performance plummets with temperature. In our dark, cold winters, we also need battery power to heat the car and run headlights. The combined result is a much shorter driving range than they'll be touting in the electric-car showroom.

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The green-car race is imploding as beleaguered citizens, struggling to deal with tough economies, see their electricity rates soar and expensive wind and solar power missing in action when most needed. Other jurisdictions are rapidly changing direction, but Ontario keeps whistling merrily in the wind, bound for uncompetitive green oblivion.

Just last week, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the development of an electric-car battery to be competitive with the internal combustion engine might be five years away. "The storage capacity of [electric]car batteries needs to be increased by six or seven times, their lives need to be extended by 15 years, and their cost needs to be reduced by a factor of three," he said at the UN climate conference in Cancun, Mexico. I think I'll sell my GM stock while I'm ahead.

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About the Author
Gwyn Morgan

Gwyn Morgan rose from his modest roots on an Alberta farm to become one of Canada’s foremost business leaders and ardent champion of the importance of Canadian-headquartered international enterprises. Gwyn has served on the board of directors of five global corporations. More

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