August 14, 2022

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Beyond Automotive

Warning lights: The wait times for electric vehicles is growing, but another queue is beckoning

7 min read

Charging ports among few roadblocks in the way of the EV revolution

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Electric vehicles, if you pay attention to headlines, are a fait accompli. Never mind that all those headlines are European — where battery-electric vehicles accounted for almost 21 per cent of new cars sales at the end of 2021 — rather than North America, which lags the eurozone with BEVs accounting for just 3.7 per cent of sales. Or that with rapidly escalating battery prices, plug-ins are about to get (much) more expensive, rather than achieve the long-promised price parity with traditional cars. Like I said, never mind all that.

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The momentum is building and whether it is 2030, when many European Union automakers are supposed to convert 100 per cent of their sales to zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs), 2035, when Prime Minister Trudeau is promising Canada will, or 2040, a much more realistic goal, there will be an ever-increasing number of EVs on our roads. The big question, then, becomes whether our transportation infrastructure, long accustomed to fuelling internal combustion engines, can handle an equal number of cars powered by lithium ion.

The simple answer, the one politicians are desperately trying to avoid, is that no one really knows. There are just so many factors governing the impact of EVs on our infrastructure that anyone claiming with certainty that they know the future of EV charging is a charlatan or selling snake oil.

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The first variable, of course, is how rapidly we all buy into electric motors. We’re more than five years behind the Europeans in this regard, mainly because we insist on electrifying $80,000 pickups rather than econo-sedans that average people can afford, but that may be a good thing considering some of the side effects of the recent uptick in popularity in Europe. That wonderful grace period where everyone keeps charging prices low in the hopes of encouraging emissions reduction is wearing off overseas.

Even zealotry for zero emissions is no match for the laws of supply and demand

Even before the Russia-Ukraine war turned energy into the most important item on political agendas, some German roadside charging stations were charging as much to fill an EV “tank” as petrol stations. Even zealotry for zero emissions is no match for the laws of supply and demand, so going a little slower in our conversion may be to our advantage.

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However, even a go-slow approach is going to tax the current capacities of our electricity-generating infrastructure. That’s where technology, particularly something called vehicle-to-grid (V2G) charging, comes into play.

So far, virtually all our efforts have been directed at stuffing electricity as quickly and as efficiently as possible into cars. Much less appreciated — except by engineers and policy wonks — is that the cumulative storage capacity of a nation’s worth of EVs might be enough to prevent all the brownouts naysayers are predicting when we go full electric. Who needs underground storage batteries or even emergency power production when we have all the spare electrons we’ll ever need just sitting in our driveways (as long as they’re plugged in, of course)? Essentially, futurists predict we’ll all charge our cars in off-peak hours and then allow our utility provider to take out what’s needed during peak usage.

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As efficient as that sounds, it also presupposes a Utopian we’re-all-in-this-together vibe of which there’s scant evidence these days. Such a V2G system would require that we all acquiesce to having our batteries depleted when, say, Ontario or BC Hydro gets itself in a jam. That is something even the most ardent environmentalists are having trouble coming to terms with. According to one European study, even EV-loving Norwegians balked at sharing their kilowatts, with one wag going so far as to describe a third party using their car for V2G energy transmission as “a type of vandalism.” Now, imagine asking a bunch of Freedom Convoy-ers how they feel about Big Brother sucking the “gas” out of their cars.

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Public charging points are the other infrastructure problem that could be a roadblock to widespread EV adoption. Two issues exist here. The first is the speed of current chargers. Range anxiety is clearly an impediment to EV adoption. Less understood is that said anxiety is not based solely on how far a car can go on one charge, but how quickly all those cells can replenish when it does have to stop. Despite widespread claims of ultra-fast charging, topping up all those lithium ions is still a very slow affair, much slower than filling an internal combustion engine vehicle.

EV sales will actually start to decrease by 2030 if infrastructure is unable to keep up with projected demand

The second issue is that there’s simply nowhere near enough public charging points available to serve all the EVs the government hopes to have on the road. Nor are there nearly enough planned in the immediate future. The federal government recently made a big deal about committing some $700 million to build up to 50,000 new public charging stations. That number might initially sound impressive, but Canada is a huge country, one in which a significant portion of the year is spent in the gloom of winter, and low temperatures typically halve an EV’s range, making an adequate infrastructure imperative.

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We’ll need one public charging “port” for every 20 EVs on the road in the current initial phase of adoption, according to one Natural Resources Canada study. As charging speeds increase — and EVs become more popular — that ratio may drop to one station per 50 cars. If you’re quick with math, that means those 50,000 stations the government is boasting about building are good for about 2.5 million EVs at best, and just a million at worst. If you want to understand how woefully inadequate that seemingly ambitious plan is, do the long division with the almost 30 million light-duty vehicles currently registered in Canada. Then factor in the half-million or so long-haul trucks that will need some seriously powerful charging units.

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A study illustrating that infrastructure is crucial to the future of decarbonizing transportations was done by nature.com and it showed up to 20 per cent of plug-in hybrid owners — and 18 per cent of BEV owners — “discontinued” their experience at least in part because of their “dissatisfaction with the convenience of charging.” A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, meanwhile, projects that EV sales will actually start to decrease by 2030 if infrastructure is unable to keep up with projected demand.

In other words, the roadblock in our quest for reduced emissions may no longer be trying to convince consumers to buy battery-powered vehicles, but to keep driving them.

A $5,000 subsidy to buy a new electric vehicle is an unquestionably alluring 15-second sound bite for any politician looking to burnish his environmental bona fides. More difficult is explaining why we need to spend billions more on infrastructure to support all those EV buyers.

That the latter might soon prove more important than the former will hopefully be enough incentive for us all to start paying attention to our electrical grid.

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