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Finding a place to plug in: Electric car infrastructure in Ontario is growing

A 2006 documentary asked "Who killed the electric car?" The question Ontario now faces is how to bring it back to life.

Over the next two years, automobile manufacturers like GM, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Nissan will introduce new plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) in Canada. But as demonstrated in California's failed 1990s attempt to popularize the low-emission vehicles, it takes more than an eco-conscious product to convert consumers from gas tanks to power cords. Federal, provincial and municipal governments, as well as hydro companies, environmental groups and other agencies have been meeting for the last couple of years to make it easier for consumers to adopt the huggable-looking new vehicles. Although the auto industry has complained that Ontario has some catching up to do, a flurry of pilot projects are expected to be rolling out through Toronto and the rest of the province over the next six months.

"We need to be a facilitator, an educator, about exactly how this technology will play out in the market," says Sandy Di Felice, director of external affairs for Toyota. The company expects to launch the plug-in version of its Prius hybrid here in 2012. "While we're investing in these technologies, if the consumers don't adopt it, there's no value in bringing it to market."

The benefits of electric vehicles are clear. Bob Oliver, executive director of Pollution Probe, says Toronto could meet 37 percent of its greenhouse gas emission-reduction targets by 2015, if electric vehicles take off -- an impressive reduction for a single initiative.

Phil Petsinis, manager of government relations at General Motors of Canada, says that GM's new Volt will produce one-eighth the green house gas emissions of the most efficient hybrids already on the road, 90 percent fewer emissions than comparable gas engines. That's even taking into account the coal-generated electricity that feeds into Ontario's power supply. Although the first electric vehicles may induce sticker shock -- prices will likely start in the mid-$30,000s for sub-compact models -- Petsinis also points out that their operating cost will be about one-fifth to one-sixth of other fuels.

On the other side of the equation are nervous consumers and an infrastructure that's still a work in progress. At the recent Plug 'N Drive conference, hosted by the Ontario Centres of Excellence and Ontario Power Generation, "range anxiety" was a key topic. Drivers worry they'll run out of charge before they can reach their destination or find a place -- or the time -- to recharge. It doesn't help that the range for each manufacturer's product may differ greatly. The Chevy Volt is expected to go up to 80 kilometres on a charge, plus another 500 kilometres with the on-board generation system; Nissan claims its Leaf will go more than 160 kilometres on a single charge. Toyota's Prius plug-in will, like the existing Prius, have a gasoline backup. Consumers will have to assess their driving patterns to chose the vehicle that has a range that works for them.

"There's also the question of, if you were going to buy one of these vehicles, what do you do?" says Cara Clairman, co-chair of Plug 'N Drive. Do you need an outlet in your garage first? (It would be a good idea -- all EVs should be compatible with a standard 240 volt plug, like many clothes dryers use.) Who do you call to install one? (A regular electrician.) Are special permits or zoning needed? (In most jurisdictions, no, but in some places it's unclear.) Can you leave your EV outside in the cold? (You can, but the car will likely lose its charge more quickly when it's parked; when it's running, it will keep itself warm.)

Ontario faces hurdles not faced by provinces like Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia. With different companies responsible for electricity generation, transmission and distribution, there are many more players. While some players, for example, are interested in finding a way to bill people for charging in public places -- mall parking lots or their workplaces, for example -- others think charge-providers should absorb the negligible cost (perhaps as little as 40 or 50 cents for a full charge) in order to promote the technology.

But then again, as Antoine Belaieff of the Clinton Climate Initiative pointed out at the conference, if EV drivers can charge for free at the mall or a government-provided plug-in station, they might never charge at home. Though most players agree that incentives are necessary, there's much debate about what they should be. Especially considering that early adapters will likely be people who have good incomes. Ontario currently provides a rebate of up to $8,500, a rebate that's less generous than some U.S. jurisdictions.

"Discounted parking is one of the most common incentives, but it's not necessarily the most fair one," says Belaieff. "Access to High Occupancy Vehicle lanes is another, as well as low-emission zones, where you can't drive into an area with an outdated vehicle."

Belaieff points out that different strategies work for different places. In Hong Kong, where few people have their own garage, public and workplace charging stations are important. In Ontario, drivers are expected to do most of their charging at home.

Stakeholders are trying to work more collaboratively. Right now there are hardly any publicly available charging stations in Toronto, something that should be change soon. GO Transit plans to have charging stations in some of its parking lots "in the near future." Clairman says that in early meetings, participants realized that none of the electric vehicles slated for the Canadian market had been evaluated by the Canadian Standards Association, a process which is now underway. Although Ontario's electricity grid can handle electric vehicle charging, there are some concerns if particular neighbourhoods adopt EV en masse -- as neighbour follows the example of neighbour -- the system could be tested.

Education is still key. With all their recent eco-messaging, utilities have made consumers highly conscious of the need to reduce household electricity consumption. Now they have to persuade people that it's green to use more electricity at home -- if it means giving up gasoline.

"We have a lot at stake in making this successful," says Clairman. "Ontario's overnight electricity comes from nuclear, hydro and wind [as opposed to the daytime, when coal plays a factor]. If we can get this to work, we can take emissions away from the tailpipe and put it into the overnight charge."

Paul Gallant is a Toronto-based freelance writer who lives in the emerging Brockton Triangle neighbourhood.

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