I own an electric car – this obstacle is holding back the industry

Pure battery models are near the tipping point of mass adoption – except for one major hurdle

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As an electric vehicle owner, there is no doubt in my mind that pure battery models are near the tipping point of mass adoption except for one major hurdle. Lack of charging infrastructure. It’s not just the scarcity of places to charge, it’s also the type of plug-in that’s a problem.

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EVs work well. Compared with combustion engine vehicles, the driving performance and acceleration are superior. In terms of price, the mainstream luxury segment has achieved an economy comparable to that of the oil-powered peer group. It is true that compact electric cars are still expensive, however, rising gasoline prices, government subsidies and the climate imperative are closing the gap in this segment as well.

Charging times can be reasonably quick. While not all manufacturers have achieved high charge rates, under the right conditions some models can gain over 200 kilometers of range in just 15 minutes. Fast charging stations have the capacity to supply electrons to the battery at a rate of over 200 times the average consumption of a home (200 kW). Moving so much electricity safely through a wire the size of a garden hose is a technical marvel.

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Everything is working fine until the new EV driver sets out on their first long-distance trip. Their enthusiasm is crushed when they witness the state of Canada’s charging infrastructure. To travel a long distance, you pretty much have to stick to the Trans-Canada Highway. Even then, the gaps between stations on Highway 1 can be uncomfortably remote, especially in cold weather when the range of a battery-electric vehicle can be reduced by more than 25%.

Lack of charging infrastructure is not only a barrier to long-distance travel, it is also a barrier to adoption in crowded urban centers. People living in apartments or other types of high density housing may not have the luxury of a garage for home charging. Just as they visit their local gas station today, they will need to stop at their local electricity charging points to refuel in the future. Rapid adoption will not be possible without a dense network of fast charging stations in widely accessible car parks in all cities.

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The charging problem is compounded by the different types of plug-ins. Unlike Europe and China which require a uniform electrical outlet, North America offers three styles of fast charging outlets. Competitors fight each other until one outlet eventually wins enough market share to become the norm. Given the urgency of decarbonization, wasting time waiting for the outcome of plug-in supremacy is an unnecessary hurdle.

And it’s not as easy as just needing the right adapter. Adapters can cost close to a thousand dollars each and they reduce the flow of electrons from a charger. You never know what you’re going to get when you pull over to a gas station. Imagine a gas pump filling your tank as slowly as a straw or as fast as a fire hose.

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To illustrate the problems created by the different types of outlets, imagine traveling west from Golden, BC. You’ve just climbed the steep Rogers Pass which has strained your electron reserves. You come to Revelstoke in dire need of more power. If you’re in a Tesla you’re in luck. You plug in the specially designed Tesla plug-in fast charger and you’re back on the road in 20 minutes. If you are in another manufacturer’s model, be prepared for a longer wait. The only fast charger in town that works for your type of plug-in takes about an hour to reach the same level of charge. Although it is not practical, you feel lucky to have arrived in Revelstoke, BC. Most cities in Canada do not have fast charging stops at all.

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It sounds simple. One type of plug-in and a clear set of charging standards would ease the confusion and help overcome this part of the scope anxiety problem. In this case, all cars could easily and transparently use the Tesla network, which is by far the most extensive system in Canada. Tesla founder Elon Musk said he intends to open up his company’s fast chargers to other types of cars, but unless Tesla renovates its network to accept other types of taken, the limited access problem will persist.

Tesla drivers would also benefit from using a standard type of plug as they can immediately access more charging points. This option would have been useful for Tesla drivers who were lining up for recharging last summer. One type of outlet should also generate more investment in new stations. When every car on the road can be your customer, your business case for increasing capacity is stronger.

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Driving more cars to non-Tesla chargers should also help solve the chronic problem of stations that are broken down because they are barely being used. It is more than frustrating to arrive at a charging point to find a “system restart” notice on the screen or that it cannot accept your payment information.

Standard outlets are also important considering that governments in Canada will need to invest billions of dollars in charging infrastructure. Not all regions of Canada have enough populations to attract private capital to build charging stations, let alone redundant systems to support multiple types of outlets. To facilitate adoption in a cold country, the stocking density should be tight. For example, Europe is now targeting charging points using standard outlets placed every 60 kilometers with a charger for 10 cars. To achieve this density in Canada, a significant number of government-subsidized chargers would be required. Subsidized charging stations should be available for every Canadian, not just a subset of cars with the right plug.

The newly re-elected Liberal federal government has set mandatory targets for all cars to be zero emissions by 2035. While the targets are important, it will take more than just targets to accelerate sales of electric vehicles in Canada from less than 4% of new cars. today at 100% in 14 years. Canada must invest and build an extensive nationwide charging network if such adoption is to be achieved. It will be a huge undertaking, but that’s not all. Like all our electrical devices, the socket must also be standardized.

Jackie Forrest is Executive Director of the ARC Energy Institute.

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