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What’s stopping us from going all in on zero-emission cars?

This article was originally published in our March issue, before the COVID-19 pandemic came to Canada. 

When it comes to adoption of electric cars, B.C. already has a running start. In the third quarter of last year, 10 percent of all new vehicles sold in the province were zero-emission, non-profit Electric Mobility Canada reports, versus 7 percent for runner-up Quebec and a national average of 3.5 percent. With last May’s passage of the Zero-Emission Vehicles Act (ZEVA), requiring all new light-duty cars and trucks to be clean-energy by 2040, the provincial government hopes to rev up our climate action game.

The EV advantage

Plug In BC, a Fraser Basin Council initiative, gives consumers the lowdown on electric cars:

Types: Battery electric (BEV); plug-in hybrid (PHEV).

Benefits: Cost as little as $320 a year to fuel, compared to $2,400 for gasoline-powered vehicles. Fewer moving parts than combustion engines equals lower maintenance costs.

Range: 350 km+ on a single charge (most people live within 25 km of work).

Charging: The most efficient way at home is by installing a Level 2 charger, similar to the power supply for clothes dryers.

Where ZEVA breaks down

The heavy-duty vehicle category, which includes larger pickups, logging trucks and 18-wheelers, is ZEVA’s Achilles heel. Freight trucks account for 40 percent of vehicle carbon emissions in North America, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), based in Washington, D.C. By 2030, electric-drive heavy-duty rigs could become cost effective, the ICCT says, subject to lower battery pack and hydrogen fuel costs.

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In the meantime, the provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is offering the CleanBC Heavy-Duty Vehicle Efficiency Program course. Completing the course lets truck fleet operators apply for rebates of up to $10,000 per vehicle and $100,000 per fleet.

Hydrogen highway? Not so fast

Thanks to lack of infrastructure, hydrogen has never quite fulfilled its promise as a zero-emission fuel. California now has 36 public hydrogen fuelling stations, but B.C. lags with just two, in Vancouver and Burnaby. Over the next few years, North Vancouver-based Hydrogen Technology and Energy Corp. (HTEC) plans to expand the hydrogen fuel network, opening four more stations in Metro Vancouver and one in Victoria.

There are just 11,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles worldwide, 20 of them comprising Whistler’s bus fleet, compared to five million plug-in electric vehicles. Last March, Vancouver-based Modo became the first car-sharing company in Canada to offer hydrogen-powered cars, adding two Hyundai Nexos to its fleet.

B.C.’s hydro play

Full electrification of the province’s vehicle sector is a real possibility, thanks to abundant potential for relatively cheap hydroelectricity. The catch: researchers with UVic’s Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) say B.C. would need to more than double its current generation capacity of roughly 16 gigawatts to 37.

The consumer tab for this infrastructure upgrade? Not as steep as you might think. Higher demand would result in a modest increase of about 9 percent in the unit cost of electricity, PICS estimates. But the hike could be as low as 5 percent if at least half of drivers charged their vehicles at off-peak times.