I F YOU’VE EVER wondered whether electric cars are catching on with the general public, consider this: On March 31, 2016, more than 200 people lined up at a Montreal dealership — in the rain —to plunk down $1,000 deposits for the Tesla Model 3. With a range of 345 kilometres per charge and a base price of US$35,000, it proved to be an attractive option for motorists looking for an emissions-friendly choice that’s also a high-performance vehicle.
Those Montreal drivers — and thousands more all across Canada — will soon be taking delivery of their Model 3s and joining the ranks of electric car drivers across the country. And the number of drivers is growing rapidly. In 2014, there were 10,000 electric vehicles on Canada’s roads. By 2016, that number stood at more than 22,000.
Clearly, electricity is gaining ground as a reliable power source for today’s drivers. But electric vehicles are still only a tiny fraction of the more than 20 million vehicles registered in Canada. Part of the reason is that many potential owners consider going electric a risky gamble. They worry electric cars cost too much. That they don’t go far enough on a charge. That you can’t find places to charge them up when you need to.
Well, the reality is far different. Those 200 Montrealers who lined up for Model 3s last year know it. So do car experts. And after reading our myth-busting article on electric cars, you will, too.
ELECTRIC CARS COST TOO MUCH.
REALITY: Sticker shock. It’s a fact of life in the world of electric cars. Always has been. When Tesla launched its sporty Roadster in 2008, it may have altered public perceptions about how well a battery-powered vehicle could perform. But its base price — well north of US$100,000 — left average drivers with a tough choice: Do I burn gas or burn money?
The Roadster, of course, was a high-performance luxury car produced in relatively small numbers. It was created to prove a point, not build a mass market. In 2017, we’re looking at a different picture, especially when it comes to price. Even before you factor in the rebates available in Quebec (up to $8,000), Ontario (up to $14,000) and British Columbia (up to $5,000), EVs are no longer out of reach for many Canadians. You can park a family-friendly Nissan Leaf in your driveway starting at $33,000. An all-electric 2017 Ford Focus comes with a base price of $32,000 (by comparison the gas-powered “titanium” version, which shares similar features, costs $27,000).
These are still more expensive than their gas-powered counterparts. But to let price alone govern a buying decision is to ignore all the costs that disappear once you drive off the dealer’s lot. And this is where the cost advantage of an electric vehicle shines.
For starters, you don’t have to buy gasoline for your car anymore. According to the Canadian Automobile Association’s online calculator, a late-model compact car will cost about $1,800 annually for someone who drives 20,000 kilometres a year. The cost for powering a small EV, such as a Nissan Leaf, is about $502 in Ontario, which, with its time-of-use pricing, has some of the highest electricity rates in Canada if you charge during peak hours. Thankfully, most EV charging happens at night, when time-of-use costs are low. Ontario’s provincial government paints an even brighter savings scenario, estimating that a typical battery-powered car costs $300 a year to charge compared to between $1,000 and $2,500 for a comparable gas-powered car.
The savings continue with maintenance. Electric vehicles have few moving parts compared with the hundreds found in gas-powered engines. Thus, they are cheaper to keep on the road: there’s no need to change oil, transmission fluid, spark plugs, air filters and more on a routine basis. In a 2014 study, the Institute for Automotive Research at Germany’s Nurtingen-Geislingen University found that maintenance costs for battery-powered cars were 35 per cent lower than those for their gas-powered cousins over the life of the vehicles.
Add up all these benefits, and the conclusion is inescapable: you can go electric — and keep your cash.
WE DON’T HAVE ENOUGH CHARGING STATIONS TO SUPPORT ELECTRIC CARS.
REALITY: If you drive a gas-powered car, it’s not hard to keep your tank topped up. Most drivers fill up every few days as a matter of routine. Those that happen to run low on fuel in the middle of a trip won’t have trouble finding a gas station. They shine like beacons on street corners and at highway rest stops across the country.
You won’t see that kind of obvious infrastructure for people who drive battery-powered cars. Then again, many will tell you it doesn’t matter. They simply plug in when they get home at night. In the morning, they have all the charge they need to get through the day. After all, most Canadian drivers don’t travel more than 50 kilometres per day, a range that any modern electric car can meet after a few hours plugged into a basic wall socket at home.
“Most EV drivers will tell you they don’t need public infrastructure,” says Cara Clairman, CEO of Plug’n Drive, a Toronto-based non-profit organization that promotes the adoption of electric vehicles. “The problem is the gas-station mindset we have, that you have to go out and find your fuel. The reality is, we’re not doing that. We’re going home every night and plugging in.”
To put that another way, switching to electric cars is really about changing habits, changing the way we are used to doing things day by day.
Of course, there will be times when drivers want to go farther than the daily average and need charging infrastructure. And that infrastructure is becoming a reality. Today, there are more than 3,900 public charging stations installed in Canada, mainly in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. More are on the way.
In their 2016 budget, for example, the federal Liberals created a $62.5-million fund over two years to support alternative fuels. The program includes the expansion of charging station networks. Ontario, meanwhile, is rolling out a program to install 500 new charging stations at 250 locations. Partners in the project include major corporations such as McDonald’s, Tim Hortons and IKEA, along with municipalities and other businesses.
Despite the rapid progress, Canada still has a ways to go in developing charging infrastructure. But Clairman notes that drivers shouldn’t see that as a necessary barrier to buying electric cars. True, they are not the right choice for every driver, she says, but they are good for many of us.
“You need infrastructure to inspire drivers,” she says, but drivers should spend time examining what they honestly need their cars for when making buying decisions. “Buy a car for the 98 per cent, not the two per cent,” Clairman says.
CANADA IS TOO COLD FOR ELECTRIC CARS.
REALITY: True story: Back in January, Teresa Di Felice, director of government and community relations for CAA South Central Ontario, travelled to Winnipeg for a meeting. It was -29 C when she stepped outside the airport and flagged a cab to take to her downtown. Once she’d settled in the backseat of the car, she realized it was a Tesla. She asked the driver how his vehicle was performing in such brutal conditions. Just fine, he said.
For Di Felice, it was a memorable moment. “If you can drive an electric vehicle at 29-below, in one of the coldest parts of Canada, I think we can say Canada is not too cold for electric vehicles.”
If you still have doubts, consider this: the country with the world’s highest adoption rate for electric cars is Norway. Still, drivers should be aware that cold weather can significantly reduce the range of electric vehicles. A recent study by FleetCarma, a Waterloo, Ont.-based information technology company focused on electric vehicles, took a deep dive into range data for the Nissan Leaf. Examining a total of more than 7,300 trips, it found that the car’s range, on average, dropped to about 80 kilometres at temperatures of -25 C — less than half the average range at optimal operating temperatures of 15-24 C. A similar 2014 study by the America Automobile Association in southern California found that extreme cold could reduce range of an electric car by up to 57 per cent.
Those figures sound off-putting, but a bit of perspective is in order. For starters, drivers can take steps to maximize cold-weather range. Heating the cabin of an electric vehicle is a major battery draw when the mercury plummets. But drivers can reduce their draw by, say, warming up their car before a trip, while it’s still plugged in. Or, if they’re hardy types, they can simply put on more winter clothes when they drive.
More important, though, is understanding that even reduced vehicle range can still be effective range. After all, the 80 kilometres reported by FleetCarma for the Nissan Leaf is still more than enough to support the average daily driving needs of most Canadians. And as Di Felice remarks when recalling her own experience in Winnipeg, “If people want to drive an electric vehicle in Canada, they’ve figured out how to drive one in winter.”
ELECTRIC CAR BATTERIES ARE MADE FROM RARE METALS. WE DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TO SUPPLY A GROWING BATTERY MARKET.
REALITY: There are probably only a handful of readers here who follow price trends in mineral markets. But those who do may have noticed a major spike in lithium prices last year. That’s not surprising to those familiar with the world of batteries.
Lithium is in high demand these days, thanks to our growing appetite for batteries to power smartphones, tablets, laptops and, yes, electric cars.
That trend has skeptics worrying the materials used to make car batteries are in short enough supply that we won’t be able to satisfy a growing electric car market. But it’s important to remember that mineral prices at any given moment are driven by more than simple supply and demand. So, how to explain rising lithium prices?
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the issue probably isn’t supply, at least in the big picture. In a 2016 outlook report, it estimates that known global reserves of lithium can meet demand for 350 years at current production levels.
Mining analysts, however, note that lithium production has not kept pace with recent demand increases, leading to a rapid increase in price. In one recent report, consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers notes that current global production is dominated by a handful of mining companies that have kept production modest to support the price of the metal.
The same report also notes that other miners are rushing to develop lithium projects to take advantage of the rising price — an observation other mineral industry experts are making in their reports.
With new projects and mine expansion now in the works, some are predicting a lithium surplus in the near future, causing prices to fall back toward the normal levels of the recent past.
Small wonder then that those experts don’t appear worried about long-term lithium supply.
They’re more concerned about over-enthusiastic investors putting too many eggs in the lithium basket — and saying goodbye to their money in the process.
ELECTRIC VEHICLES TAKE TOO LONG TO CHARGE.
REALITY: When you buy a car, you want to be able to use it when you need to. If you have to put off a trip because your car is plugged in, you’re not getting full use of the vehicle. But is this a real issue?
Not according to CAA’s Di Felice: “When electric vehicles were the newest thing on the market, it was a concern,” she says. And understandably so. If the low-battery signal lit up on your dashboard five years ago, you’d have to be very lucky to find yourself in the vicinity of a high-speed charging station. That’s changing, Di Felice says. Technology is improving and charging infrastructure is expanding, especially high-speed charging. Of the 500 new stations in Ontario, for example, more than 200 are so-called Level 3 chargers, which can add 100 kilometres of range — and sometimes much more — in 30 minutes for compatible cars, according to FleetCarma.
More common are Level 2 chargers, which can add 20 to 45 kilometres of range in an hour, depending on the make of the car. Finally, you can always plug an electric car into a standard wall socket. You’ll only get about six or seven kilometres of range for every hour. But if you’re like most car owners, driving less than 50 kilometres a day, an overnight charge at home will easily provide the range you need in the morning.
If you want more, you can also buy a Level 2 station for your home. The fully installed cost will come in around $2,000, but many jurisdictions offer rebates to offset the expense.
Plug’n Drive’s Clairman has been an electric vehicle owner since 2011 and says the time it takes to charge is irrelevant in her experience. “People ask me how long it takes to charge. I say ‘I don’t know,’” Clairman says, laughing. “I ask them how long it takes to charge their cellphone. They say, ‘I don’t know.’ It’s just something you do.”
OLD BATTERIES FROM ELECTRIC CARS ARE DANGEROUS TOXIC WASTE.
REALITY: It’s true. If electric car batteries are destined only for the scrapyard at the end of their life in a vehicle, they are toxic waste. The good news is that there’s no need to throw them away. For starters, the metals they contain can be recovered in recycling programs. The process is complex, but the effort is worth it. Recycling reduces the need to mine and process raw materials, which helps reduce overall industrial emissions. In some cases, it also reduces the need to import materials, which is a benefit for the balance of payments in international trade in countries where the batteries are made.
The most intriguing opportunities, however, lie in finding new uses for old batteries. When a battery degrades to a point where owners aren’t satisfied with their car’s maximum range, it can still have up to about 70 per cent of its capacity. Researchers are now developing energy-storage techniques to make use of this. General Motors, for example, uses retired Chevy Volt batteries to store power at its facility in Milford, Michigan. Other groups are looking at ways to stack batteries for utility-scale storage of power from intermittent sources, such as wind and solar. Other ideas include using them to store off-peak or renewable power for warehouses, industrial refrigeration units and even homes.
One study by researchers at the University of Waterloo found that deploying old electric car batteries for energy storage could reduce carbon emissions by 56 per cent compared to natural gas generation. That figure, they say, is roughly equivalent to emissions avoided by switching from gas cars to electric cars, potentially doubling the environmental benefit of electric vehicles.
ELECTRIC CARS ARE INEFFICIENT AND THEY AREN’T AS ECO-FRIENDLY AS THEY APPEAR.
REALITY: Just for the record, electric cars are far more efficient in their use of energy than gas-powered cars where the rubber meets the road. About 60 per cent of the power generated by their battery is converted to power at the wheel. A gas-powered car? Usually less than 20 per cent.
But that’s just a detail relevant to physics and engineering. The real question is whether electric cars are efficient over their entire lives when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is an important issue that is influenced by many factors. For starters, manufacturing electric cars produces more emissions than manufacturing conventional gas-powered engines. In the case of a mid-size vehicle with a range of 135 kilometres per charge, the difference can be as much as 15 per cent, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. In the case of a vehicle with a 400-kilometre range, that increase can jump to as much as 65 per cent.
The environmental costs, however, are recovered quickly. On average, a mid-size electric car will break even on carbon production from manufacturing after 8,000 kilometres of driving. A full-size electric will cross that threshold at 32,000 kilometres. After that, it’s almost all zero-emissions gravy depending on the electricity source.
The volume of greenhouse gas reductions will vary from region to region depending on how electricity is generated. The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that the most fuel-efficient conventional cars outperform electric vehicles in areas where coal-fired power plants dominate the energy mix. But even then, electric vehicles still outperform the average gas-powered vehicle.
And once you have emissions-free generation, electric vehicles deliver massive benefits. That’s good news for Canada, where coal accounts for only 10 per cent of electricity generation, according to the federal Department of Natural Resources. About 60 per cent comes from hydro, followed by nuclear generation at 16 per cent, and non-hydro renewables such as wind at five per cent. In other words, for most of this country, the switch to an electric vehicle generates almost immediate environmental benefits.